The 25th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships wraps up on Saturday night and it was quite fun getting the players to reminisce about their early memories of the tournament.
When tennis touched down in the Arabian Gulf for the first time in 1993, there was so much scepticism and uncertainty about the event simply because no one knew anything about Dubai or Doha and it was the players’ curiosity that brought them to the region early on.
“The first time, February 1993, when I saw an ATP tournament in Dubai on the calendar I said ‘wow’, more or less, ‘where is that?’ That was my first reaction but my second was that ‘I wanna go’,” Fabrice Santoro, the runner-up of the inaugural Dubai edition told Sport360.
“It’s always a great opportunity when you do this job to see new places, new cultures and everything. So I entered the tournament. I went there and it was the beginning of the opening of Dubai, a couple of hotels, a couple of buildings but not many. A lot of sand in the city and the old city was there, and when you look at what Dubai became 25 years later it’s one of the biggest transformations I’ve seen in the world. Probably the biggest.
“I remember when Sheikh Mohammed (bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai, vice president and prime minister of the UAE) gave us the trophy. It was unique to get a trophy as a finalist from his hands.
“I played almost every year, I saw it for the first time in 1993 and I said ‘I wanna go back’.”
The retired Frenchman enjoyed lots of success in the Gulf region, reaching four singles finals combined in Dubai and Doha, and capturing the title in 2000 in Qatar and 2002 in the UAE.
“I always played well in the Middle East, I won just six tournaments in my career and I won Doha and Dubai, and I also won both in doubles,” recalls Santoro.
“I’m always happy to come to this part of the world, even when I don’t come for work, I come for holidays. Sometimes the atmosphere in Europe – I love Europe, I love France – but sometimes the atmosphere is heavy, a lot of pollution, the rhythm is high, in the street people are very stressed and when you arrive here it’s like it’s another rhythm, it’s comfortable.”
Supporting Arab talent
The tournament didn’t just bring some of the best players in the world to Dubai, it also helped Arab players by providing wildcards, giving them a chance to gain some ATP or WTA points by competing in events they wouldn’t necessarily have been able to compete in with their ranking alone.
Tunisian Selima Sfar, who is the only Arab woman to ever crack the top-100, has fond memories of playing at the Aviation Club, where she reached the quarter-finals in the inaugural women’s edition in 2001.
“I remember for myself, especially in Dubai, I always played very well, I have my best memories here,” recalls Sfar, who is now a commentator and analyst for beIN Sports.
“And I remember playing Anna Kournikova (in 2002) and of course everybody wanted to come and watch Kournikova, so having an Arab player playing against Kournikova on centre court, night session, it was full, really full. And it’s the first time I noticed ‘wow, the crowd in Dubai like tennis’. I was really surprised, it was a great atmosphere.”
To celebrate the tournament’s silver jubilee, Dubai Duty Free published a book called ‘Game, Set and Dubai: A Quarter Century of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships’ that includes an extensive history of the event as well as the early sports revolution that put the emirate on the global sports map.
It includes some fascinating old photos of Dubai – including an aerial view of Emirates Golf Club from the late eighties when it was only surrounded by the desert – and is definitely worth a read.
It’s been a real treat coming to this tournament for the past 10 years and hopefully it sticks around for at least another 25.