Inside Story: UAE's rise as tennis retreat

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Home away from home: Roger Federer has been training in Dubai for over 10 years.

If you’ve passed by any of the major tennis facilities across the UAE over the past few weeks, you’ve probably been lucky enough to come across one or two star players hitting on court. 

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A host of tennis professionals have been preparing for the 2015 season here in the Emirates this past month and they’ve managed to do so quite discreetly.

Places like Miami and Australia have been typical destinations for players during this part of the year but the UAE has managed to get into the mix, establishing itself as one of the most popular locations for the pros to train in the winter.

It’s been 10 years since Roger Federer first decided to spend some training time in Dubai and it came as no surprise when other players started following suit. 

Federer stopped by Dubai in 2004, after his second Wimbledon triumph, and when he realised he didn’t mind the extreme heat, he decided it was a perfect spot to practice.

The Swiss 17-time major champion bought an apartment near Dubai Marina a little while after that and the Northern Emirate quickly became his second home. 

Since then, more and more tennis players have flocked to the UAE for their pre-season training.

Some were invited by Federer to act as hitting partners – like Aussie junior Thanasi Kokkinakis this year – while others were lured to the desert by the perfect December weather conditions, the abundance of great facilities and the prime location, which allowed them to get closer to their next destination, Doha, Chennai or Australia.

A few years back Kim Clijsters, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Federer were all seen at the courts at Al Qasr putting in the hard yards. 

Jelena Jankovic has been a regular at the Habtoor Grand, Novak Djokovic has more than one preferred location, while Grigor Dimitrov trained at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel in 2011.

More recently, Doha started attracting players, the likes of Victoria Azarenka and Janko Tipsarevic holding their preparation camps there in 2012. 

But with the IPTL concluding in Dubai two weeks ago, the UAE has once again become the ultimate hot spot for players looking to get into shape for next season, with many stars of the new league opting to stay longer to train.

The courts at several facilities around Dubai were jam-packed with IPTL players earlier this month, from Tomas Berdych to Marin Cilic to Caroline Wozniacki while others like Ana Ivanovic, Malek Jaziri and Daniela Hantuchova continued to train here well
after the league concluded.

Federer, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Angelique Kerber, Alexandr Dolgopolov, Blaz Kavcic, Kokkinakis and Borna Coric have come to Dubai independent of the IPTL while world No1 Djokovic left and came back to get some practice done ahead of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi this weekend.

With so many players in town, you’d think that the tennis academies hosting them would be making quite the profit this time of the year. But you’d be surprised at how little revenue the venues are making off these stars. They may have no shortage of funds but most players still end up getting free accommodation and services here.

One huge advantage of training in Dubai is the fact that most of the luxury hotels have great tennis facilities and are run by some of the best tennis academies in the country. Which means players don’t just get to stay at a nice hotel, they also have access to the courts, gym, pool and spa all in one location, and are offered sparring partners as well.

Sounds like a dream scenario… Even better? Some players get all that free of charge.

Arab No.1 Jaziri has been staying at the Habtoor Grand Beach Resort and Spa, courtesy of Khalaf Al Habtoor, the chairman of Al Habtoor Group.

Al Habtoor is a tennis enthusiast and has been hosting players at his hotel for years.

“I was supposed to train in Miami but I was here in Dubai for the IPTL and I spoke with many of the guys and they told me they’re staying here to practice,” Jaziri told Sport360°.

“It’s a good opportunity for me because at home in Tunisia, I can’t practice with anyone. The people here are really nice. Mr Khalaf Al Habtoor gave me a room, and I can practice in all these different clubs for free, which is great.

“The weather is good. I’ve got everything I need, it’s just a really comfortable setting. Travelling from here to the rest of the world afterwards is also very easy because Emirates flies everywhere.”

He’s not the only one who has been enjoying the Habtoor treatment. At least two other players have been spotted on the hotel grounds this month. Another big hit with the players is Meydan. The hotel, overlooking the magnificent racecourse, offered special rates for a number of players, who got to hit at the attached tennis academy, run by Tennis360.

In Abu Dhabi, PSS academy at Zayed Sports City has also been accommodating some players. Sigi Meeuws, co-founder of PSS, says the players get the courts very cheap at ZSC and the academy offers hitting partners and access to their on-site fitness club, The  Room, free of charge.

“For us it is a way to help these players out,” says Meeuws. “For sure it’s not profitable, but it is good exposure for the academy and it’s nice to have top players around.

“Our juniors can learn from watching them and seeing how professional they practice, warm up, train, cool down, stretch… This is how we want our juniors to train and reach the next level.”

Providing hitting partners for the pros is a challenging yet crucial part of what these academies offer. Despite there being a large pool of players in the country at the same time, not many of them directly speak to each other, and several of the best females players have been known to prefer to hit with one of the male players rather than reach out to another WTA star.

It’s also surprising how disorganised players can be when it comes to scheduling their hitting sessions. 

Some academy heads found themselves tasked with finding last-minute sparring partners and it often resulted in sending in some of their juniors to save the day. 

All perks aside, privacy is perhaps the most appealing factor for the stars when it comes to training here. There aren’t that many places in the world where Federer can take a stroll with his family in a mall (which he was doing at The Dubai Mall just a few days ago) or where Djokovic can spend hours on a court by the beach undisturbed.

The players have been freely visiting each other at their training bases across the UAE, smoothly going about their business in some beautiful surroundings.

“They love that it’s private and serene,” says Gwen Sproule of Tennis360 at Meydan. “To have that tranquil experience, in front of the lush greens, it’s so soothing.”

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Regional Team of 2014 – UAE cricket, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Hilal, Al Ahli, Qatar football team

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Simply the best: Who out of UAE cricket team, Abu Dhabi Harlequins, Al Hilal, Al Ahli, Qatar football team is your Regional Team of the Year?

Have your say as to who should be crowned Sport360's Regional Team of the Year from our shortlist of nominees by voting below or by using #360awards on social media. 

– VOTE: Sport360's Regional Sportsman 2014

– VOTE: Sport360's Regional Sportswoman 2014

– VOTE: Sport360's International Sportswoman 2014
– VOTE: Sport360's International Team 2014

– VOTE: Sport360's International Sportsman 2014

UAE CRICKET TEAM

In 2014, the UAE participated in the ICC World Twenty20 and finished second in the ACC Premier League. But their crowning glory was managing to qualify for the 2015 World Cup, which is going to be held in Australia and New Zealand in February.

ABU DHABI HARLEQUINS

Harlequins won 10 out of 10 matches in the Gulf Top Six but narrowly lost in the final to Jebel Ali Dragons. However, that disappoint was forgotten when Quins clinched the UAE Premiership title after beating Dubai Hurricanes. They followed up that tiumph by also lifting the Dubai Rugby Sevens title in December to reassert themselves at the top team in the Gulf.

AL HILAL
                       
The Riyadh-based side were runners-up in the Saudi Premier League this year and the Saudi King's Cup. They fought well but ended up as second best in the AFC Champions League after losing to West Sydney Wanderers 1-0 on aggregate. A superb effort nonetheless.

Al AHLI

Another memorable year for the Red Knights. Al Ahli won their sixth UAE league title, lifting the Arabian Gulf League trophy. It was their first league title after a gap of five years. On top of that in 2013-14, they also emerged victorious in the Arabian Gulf Cup and the Arabian Gulf Super Cup. 

QATAR FOOTBALL TEAM

Qatar grabbed their third Gulf Cup title after defeating Saudi Arabia 2-1 in Riyadh, ending a 10-year wait for the crown. The win for Djamel Belmadi's side was one of the biggest shocks in the GCC in recent memory, coming without absent star duo Khalfan Ibrahim and Sebastian Soria. 

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