Colm McLoughlin Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free at the Dubai Duty Free Head Quarter, Dubai. Image Credit: A.K Kallouche/Gulf News

Dubai: The 2019 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship, now at the business-end of its WTA week, is already a winner again. If the stellar line-up of the women’s field, including the new world No. 1 Naomi Osaka, made for a strong statement, the air of anticipation over the return of Swiss master Roger Federer ensures the terraces will be full at the Aviation Club next week.

Now in its 27th year since the inception of the ATP event in 1993, the tournament has acquired an iconic status of sorts in putting the emirate in the global map, and Colm McLoughlin, the executive vice-chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free can look back with great degree of satisfaction at the legacy he and his team has built so far.

The comfort level of the players, which has seen the event being voted by them as the best 500 Series in the world repeatedly over the decade, has also seen its goodwill rise and make it a marquee event in the social calendar of the city.

What’s the secret of its success then, year after year, despite the region often witnessing some geopolitical unrest?

From the very start, media were talking about Roger being a very special player who had a very calm demeanour and was down to earth.

- Com McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO, Dubai Duty Free

“For the most part, we have the same group of people from Dubai Duty Free and our partners involved in organising the tournament for many years and I think that this familiarity and the friendly atmosphere that is evident on site is felt by the players, officials and media, who now know us well,” McLoughlin told Gulf News in an interview.

“Every year we try to improve the tournament in some way, for example this year, we upgraded the on-court lighting systems and we introduced a purpose-built player lounge on one side of the hotel — which is spacious and provides excellent food choices for the players throughout the day. So generally speaking, we look after the interests of the players, officials, the sponsors, the media and of course the fans and it is appreciated,” the Irishman, who founded one of the world’s leading airport retailers way back in 1983, said.

The tournament’s rise in stature in the new millennium, significantly enough, has coincided with the journey of a certain Roger Federer — no wonder the seven-time champion here enjoys the status of a brand ambassador of the event by default. Revealing how they were a part of the journey for the 20-time Grand Slam winner, McLoughlin said: “Every year, we talk to Roger about playing Dubai and we are obviously very happy when he does include us in his schedule. Roger has been coming to Dubai since 2002 when he was a young player and making his way up the rankings.

“From the very start, the media were talking about Roger being a very special player who had a very calm demeanour and was down to earth. These qualities have endeared him to his legion of fans around the world.”

“He is a familiar figure in Dubai at different times of the year and the Dubai fans have really taken them to their hearts and cheer him on through the tournament, and we are always happy to welcome back our seven-time champion. When we organised the photo shoot on the helipad of Burj Al Arab back in February 2005, we had no doubt that Roger would be the ideal player to team up with the legendary Andre Agassi for this activity. The photo, we were told by the ATP, was seen by half the planet,” the Dubai Duty Free supremo said.

The players’ line-up last year had, in comparative terms, looked a bit short on big names in the ATP week but McLoughlin felt the 2018 edition went a long way in acting as a launching pad for a few exciting talents. If Stefanos Tsitsipas, the slayer of Federer in Australian Open was one as he made the semi-finals here, the new women’s world No. 1 Naomi Osaka also caught the eye.

Roger Federer with DDF officials Salah Tahlak, Colm McLoughlin and Sinead El Sibai. Image Credit: Courtesy: Organisers

Did Osaka catch the eye then? “There were a couple of young WTA players that we were impressed with last year and Naomi Osaka was certainly one of them. When she played last year, she was ranked 48 and made it through to the quarter-finals before losing to eventual champion Elina Svitolina.

“Her obvious talent and determination set her apart then and it is fantastic to see how far she has come in the intervening year. Immediately after losing in Dubai she took her first steps to stardom by winning the Indian Wells title. She then defeated Serena Williams at the Miami Open before stunning the tennis world, and Serena again, by winning the US Open. She has continued her fantastic run this season, winning the Australian Open,” he said. It’s a different matter that Osaka bit the dust in the first round of the tournament — much to the chagrin of her expat fans from the continent.

Finally, how does McLoughlin look back at this wonderful legacy of his — the tennis tournament? A whiff of nostalgia crept into his voice as McLoughlin said: “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 DDF team.

“I also think we have been very fortunate to have the patronage of His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, from the very beginning in 1993. Our Chairman, Shaikh Ahmad Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, has been incredibly supportive of this tournament over the years as well as Shaikh Hasher of Tennis Emirates, who is an avid tennis fan and who attends every year.”