Kolkata: It’s that fortnight of the year when the Dubai International Tennis Stadium comes abuzz with some of the biggest names of the game parading their stuff. The depth of field will be the same, with the high point being the return of the Swiss ace Roger Federer after the gap of a year due to injury - though the safety protocols mean that the event is being played behind closed doors.
Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free and a name synonymous with the tournament, admits it’s a bit ‘‘strange’’ to host the tournament as it feeds a lot from the energy and family-feel generated by the crowd. ‘‘However, we are happy to be staging the tournament in the first place,’’ says a pragmatic McLoughlin during an exclusive interview with Gulf News.
This is the 21st week of the women’s event and 29th edition of the men and McLoughlin feels that a sense of continuity, whereby the same core group had been working together for years and their ‘‘collective experience’’ has made the job seamless over the years. The challenges are harder this year in light of the COVID-19 implications and in the words of the DDF boss, ‘‘we worked hard to provide the highest possible safety measures set by the UAE authorities, including the Dubai Sports Council and Dubai Health Authority, adhering to the protocols put in place by the Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management as well as from the WTA and ATP Tours.’’
Following are the excerpts of the conversation:
Gulf News: In nearly 30 years of hosting the Dubai Duty Free tennis, this is certainly the first time you are hosting it without fans for obvious reasons. Doesn’t it feel strange?
Colm McLoughlin: Yes, it is very strange to host the tournament without fans, as the crowds at the stadium have always been enthusiastic and passionate tennis fans. Also, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium has a very special atmosphere, although it is a 5,000-seater stadium, it is very intimate and there is no bad seat in the house. So not having the crowds in attendance is very different.
However, we are happy to be staging the tournament in the first place and we know that the players and officials appreciate the efforts made to run the event given the circumstances. Also, the TV coverage of the tournament is being beamed around the world and hundreds of millions of viewers will enjoy watching the tennis in Dubai.
A key feature about this year’s line-up is the novelty factor in the WTA line-up with a few interesting names like the French Open champion Iga Swiatek or Jennifer Brady, the Australian Open runner-up. Is it a conscious effort to add variety in the first week?
We are delighted to welcome Iga Swiatek to Dubai for the first time. She is one of the most exciting young players to emerge in recent times, and the manner in which she achieved her victory in Paris was remarkable. We look forward to seeing if she can repeat that success here in Dubai. Sadly, Jennifer Brady has withdrawn from the tournament due to changes on her schedule but we would love to see her back in Dubai next year.
The DDF has had some big names as brand ambassadors like Ana Ivanovic, Caroline Wozniacki over the years. Can we get to see any new name in this role in future?
The brand ambassadors’ programme was part of our partnership agreement with the WTA and we chose Ana and Caroline for several years as they genuinely loved playing Dubai and they were happy to join us at our other events around the world and to promote them. One year, we had Ana Ivanovic join us at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby in Ireland, while Caroline joined us several times at our racing at Newbury and both players joined us for the Dubai Airshow Gala Dinner one year and for the Dubai International Film Festival.
Simona Halep was also an ambassador for a time and has been to the Dubai Duty Free shopfloor in Concourse D during our 36th anniversary in 2019. Elina Svitolina and Zhang Shuai were also ambassadors for us, with the latter representing Dubai Duty Free’s focus on China and leveraging WTA’s extensive exposure and reach in the region. Basically, the role of the ambassadors has been to understand more about Dubai Duty Free and to promote Dubai and our brand around the world and there are so many players that are good in that role.
Moving on to the ATP week, the news of Roger Federer’s comeback after 2019 in what could be his last competitive season must be like music to the local fans’s ears. What’s your personal reaction?
It is great that Roger has signed up to play Doha and Dubai as part of his return from injury. We have a very long and special relationship with Roger and we know that he loves being in Dubai and playing the tournament which he first won aged 21 in 2003 and has gone on to win it a further seven times. His 2019 win was special as it marked his 100th career title and he was very happy with that amazing milestone and we were very happy to be part of that story.
Objectively speaking, how much do you feel he has contributed to the tournament’s growth in stature by winning it eight times?
Roger is fondly referred to being the GOAT, the greatest player of all time and certainly whenever he plays in Dubai, there is a very special atmosphere as he is much loved here. I am sure it is the same at any tournament that he plays in and we were lucky to have him play Dubai since he was 20 and emerging as a great talent. We really saw the impact of his popularity when we organised the photo shoot on the helipad of Burj Al Arab back in February 2005 which had Roger play a tennis match against the legendary Andre Agassi, who was making his debut in Dubai that year. The media reaction to those images was incredible and we were told by the ATP this itwas seen by half the planet.
In Dominic Thiem, we have the man who could be king in men’s tennis. Can he take over the mantle from the ‘Big Three’ in due course of time?
Dominic Thiem has already proven that he is worthy to be named alongside Thomas Muster as one of the greatest tennis players that Austria has produced. His results, particularly over the past two seasons, have often been spectacular and we very much look forward to welcoming him back to Dubai after his first appearance here in 2015.
For you and the team, each year had been like a crowning glory with recognition from both players’ bodies. Has the job of putting it all together become any easier for you with years of experience?
This year marks the 29th edition of the men’s week of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and the 21st for the WTA week and we are very lucky to have had so many of the same people involved in the running of the tournament and their collective experience ensures the event runs smoothly. However, this is an international event and there are always challenges, especially this year when we have had to consider all of the COVID-19 implications so we worked hard to provide the highest possible safety measures set by the UAE authorities including the Dubai Sports Council and Dubai Health Authority, adhering to the protocols put in place by the Supreme Committee of Crisis and Disaster Management as well as from the WTA and ATP tours.
I am very happy that the organisation of the event is largely undertaken by a Dubai Duty Free in-house team and we have a Tournament Committee, which is headed up by Ramesh Cidambi, our COO while Salah Tahlak, our EVP of Corporate Service, is our Tournament Director and has been for many years and Sinead El Sibai, our SVP for Marketing. Our Marketing team is instrumental in running the tournament and all of our other departments are involved including HR, Finance, IT, Purchasing, Display, Stores, Operations and Security. Usually, all of the ushers at the tournament are Dubai Duty Free staff who volunteer their services for the tournament but are not in place this year.
Finally, a question which must have been asked a thousand times to you…how much has these two events helped in raising the profile of Dubai to the world?
The media analysis for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships last year generated an estimated US$1.53 billion worth of TV exposure which is incredible. Apart from the enormous viewership we received from the on-court action, the off-court activities that we organised along with WTA and ATP players has also contributed in raising the profile of Dubai to the world.
I am very proud of the fact that this tournament has grown so much over the years and I have so many happy memories around this event. However, it is important to point out that there are so many people involved in delivering this tournament and I am very grateful to them all for their efforts, including my own Dubai Duty Free team. I also think we have been very fortunate to have the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, from the very beginning in 1993. Our Chairman, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, has been incredibly supportive of this tournament over the years as well as Sheikh Hasher of UAE Tennis Federation, who is an avid tennis fan and attends every year.