Tennis - Sk Mo giving trophies
Sheikh Mohammed used to present the winner's trophies in the early days. Goran Ivanisevic, the former Wimbledon champion, after receiving the trophy from him in 1996. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The UAE, celebrating it’s 50 years this year, had been pathbreakers in a lot of areas - and it includes leveraging on sport in the region to reach out to the world. As one looks back at the rapid strides taken by the country, the ones in the sporting arena had been extremely significant - and its a template which some of their regional neighbours have followed in later years.

From Formula One racing to World Cup horseracing to being a favourite tennis destination for both the top ATP and WTA Tours, the country has established itself in world sporting map. The brain behind the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Colm McLoughlin - Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO of Dubai Duty Free - agreed that the country’s Rulers had long considered the ‘importance of sport in raising the profile of UAE.’

In an exclusive interview with Gulf News, ‘Colm,’ as he is fondly referred to in the social circles of Dubai, looked back with a great deal of satisfaction on what had been a fascinating journey for his event. Following are the excerpts:

Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice-chairman & CEO of Dubai Duty Free, had been synonymous with the tennis championships over nearly three decades. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

QUESTION: The recognition of Dubai as a major ATP & WTA Tour stop, on the 50th anniversary of UAE, must be of special significance to you?

ANSWER: The UAE’s golden jubilee is a milestone occasion for the country and we are delighted to be a part of its 50th year history through both Dubai Duty Free, which will mark its 38th Anniversary in December of this year, and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which commenced in 1993 and is one of the international sporting events that is so popular on Dubai’s social calendar.

Things were very different back in 1993 and we are proud to have been behind one of the events that has played its role in placing Dubai firmly on the map.

Though we have asked you this question several times before, but how has been the journey?

This year, we marked the 29th edition of the men’s week of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and the 21st for the WTA week and despite the difficulties of organising sporting events during a global pandemic, we hosted the 2021 Championships behind closed doors as per the guidelines by the UAE authorities in March, which required massive health and safety protocols to be put in place for the tournament to go ahead.

The tournament was a great success, was watched by a potential one billion people and generated US$1.5 billion worth of TV coverage, of which US$586.7 million was for the Dubai Duty Free brand alone.

Tennis - Dubai Duty Free
Familiar sight: A full house at the centre court of Dubai Tennis Stadium. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

I am very proud of the fact that this tournament has grown so much over the years. Since 1993, it was clear that this tournament was going to serve up success right from the beginning. It has delivered a great number of memories and has attracted pretty much all of the world’s best players, who time and time again have made Dubai an essential stop on the Tour. There have been countless surprises, upsets, dramas and spectacular battles that have had us all on the edge of our seats. We look forward to many more in the years ahead.

Lastly, I think it is quite unusual and very special to have so many members of the original organising committee still involved with the event, such as Ramesh Cidambi, Salah Tahlak and Sinead El Sibai and I think that continuity and dedication is one of the keys to our success. We also have a wonderful Dubai Duty Free staff, hundreds of whom fulfill important responsibilities in the organisation and ensure the smooth running of the event each year. Their involvement makes it truly a company affair and this unity is also one of the secrets of our success.


Looking back, would you agree that the Rulers possibly had a plan to leverage on sport – a model which some of the neighbours are now following?

Yes, the Rulers of the UAE have long considered the importance of sport in raising the profile of the UAE. We have been very fortunate to have such a level of support from the Government of Dubai through the patronage from 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.

Likewise, 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. We appreciate the encourgament that we receive and everyone working on the event is very proud of their contribution to the tournament success.

The Federer Act: Roger Federer, a great brand ambassador of the event, won his 100th ATP title in Dubai in 2019. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

You have, by and large, stuck to a successful template every year. Do you plan to continue on the same vein?

We are happy with how we managed this tournament year after year. An enormous effort is required to stage the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and our long experience in staging the tournament has its advantages and helps us to fine-tune as each year passes. 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.

The fact that Dubai is one of the key stops on the world tour is a testament to the hard work of everyone involved. Each and every year, we try to deliver an even better experience for the players and the spectators, and to ensure that the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships maintains its position as one of the most popular events in Dubai and in world tennis.

Any other message that you would like to add for tennis fans of Dubai on UAE’s 50th anniversary?

Thanks to everyone who has supported the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships throughout the years. To the fans, both locally and overseas and everyone who watches this tournament wherever they are in the world. We hope that 2022 will be our greatest year yet as we return to normalcy. We also look forward to welcoming another strong line-up of tennis players and witness world class action as we celebrate the 30th staging of the Championships in February, 2022.

Tennis - Martina Hingis
Martina Hingis (seated) had been the first winner of women's singles title in Dubai in 2001. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai Duty Free Tennis: A timeline

* In 1993, the tournament made a modest beginning at the Aviation Club as an ATP 250 tournament. The club then had no formal stadium and the tournament was hosted on hardcourts, surrounded by temporary scaffolding, hosting a total of 3000 viewers across all courts.

* In 1996, the tournament was held at the newly erected Dubai Tennis Stadium at the Aviation Club. The construction of the stadium also led to an organic development of various food & beverage outlets in and around the stadium like the Irish and Century Villages.

* In 2012, a significant addition took place as a 293-bedroom hotel was constructed on-site. The Jumeirah Creekside Hotel offers a convenient stay for most of the players and officials as they can just walk through the venue into the hotel.

* Karel Novácek, then world No.23, won the inaugural ATP men’s tournament in 1993. The inaugural WTA women’s tournament took place in 2001 as a Premier tournament and was won by Martina Hingis.

* Roger Federer and Justine Henin dominated the singles tournaments for five years between 2003 and 2007, when each won the singles title four times. Novak Djokovic, who has won five titles, later emulated Federer when he won it four times in five years between 2009 and 2013. The reigning champions are Aslan Karatsev and Garbine Muguruza, who won the 2021 edition played behind closed doors.

* In 2005, the Dubai Tennis Championships implemented equal prize money policy - becoming the third professional tennis event to do so after the US Open and Australian Open.

- G.B.

Tennis - Crowd
A packed centre court, eateries around the stadium, daily concerts outside the Irish Village has lent the tournament a distinct charm of its own. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

The family feel of Dubai Duty Free tennis makes it so special

By Gautam Bhattacharyya, Senior Associate Editor

There are a few abiding memories of Dubai that will stay with me after being based out of there for 17 years - and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship is certainly one of them.

Yes, the quality of tennis there will be certainly form a part of it - as I could be privy to at least two generation of greats plying their trade in the city that I lived and worked in. From Andre Agassi, Roger Federer - one of the biggest ambassadors of the event with eight titles there and Novak Djokovic or Justin Henin, Kim Clijsters, Williams sisters to a Elina Svitolina.

The biggest attraction for me, as well as my family, was of course the festive atmosphere in and around the Dubai International Stadium for those two weeks around February-March every year. The rock band playing outside the Irish Village, the wide range of multi-cuisine eateries dotting around the centre court, the souvenir shops, people lounging on bean bags to soak in the action on giant TV screens - all went to create the perfect carnival atmosphere whose effect lingered for sometime even after the two weeks were over.

Tennis - Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic, a five-time winner of the men's singles title, with the trophy last year. Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

While the day’s action would start around noon each day, the big name of the day would normally be slotted at 7 pm local time - when the crowd would gradually swell to watch a Federer or Serena Williams in action.

Till even a few years back, there would be something for the Indian expat audience to cheer about when either Leander Paes, Mahesh Bhupathi or Sania Mirza would take to the courts - and it may be quite a while before someone gains their stature.

The tournament, from a rather modest beginning in 1993, has grown organically to become one of the major sporting pit stops around the country which is celebrating 50 years of its existence. Like the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which will celebrating it’s 13th edition this year, Dubai World Cup horseracing which marked it’s silver jubilee edition earlier this year, the Dubai Desert Classic and the European Tour golf events, the tennis fortnight has become an inseparable part of the UAE’s sporting landscape.

Here’s hoping it continues to stay that way and prosper in the coming years!