Salah Tahlak blasts WTA players over Dubai Duty Free withdrawals

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Tahlak has criticised player withdrawals from the Dubai event.

Salah Tahlak, the tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, has blasted the WTA players for their “lack of commitment” and urges the chiefs of the sport to investigate ways that would ensure last week’s slew of high profile withdrawals doesn’t happen again.

Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber, Agnieszka Radwanska and Dubai Duty Free global ambassador Caroline Wozniacki, were amongst a lengthy list of absentees that made last-minute decisions not to compete in the tournament.

The fact that the top eight seeds all crashed out before the quarter-finals, without winning a single match – the first time this has occurred at any tournament – compounded the organisers’ misery and Tahlak admits it affected the ticket sales “drastically”.

“This is the first time ever for us where all the eight seeds lost before the quarter-finals. That hit us badly. The players sometimes they don’t see or think how much the events and cities are investing behind this. And we invested a lot of money,” said Tahlak, who is also the vice president – corporate communications at Dubai Duty Free, the owners of the tournament.

“We built the stadium, we built a five-star onsite hotel, all this counts over the years. And then imagine to have all the pictures of Serena, Radwanska, Caroline, all of them on Sheikh Zayed Road, it’s a lot of money.

“We are losing a lot of money, and then plus, to lose one of our brand ambassadors not to come (Wozniacki). We absolutely appreciate what she did for us previously, she was really good at it, she attended all the events, she was committed. But this year everything collapsed, that’s really bad.

“All the top seeds not coming, not attending, that impacted our ticket sales, the tickets sales was very bad, it dropped drastically.

“You could see the first day of the men’s, same time of the women’s singles final, I think the final of the ladies, it was 50 per cent full, whereas the first day of the men’s, at 7pm, it was packed.

“So this is a problem. We spend a lot of money on ladies’ tennis, and we equalised the prize money, but it seems it’s not working.”

Tahlak with Williams (l), who was a late withdrawal from the tournament.

Tahlak with Williams in 2014, who was a late withdrawal from the tournament.

This year, the Dubai tournament was a Premier event, not Premier 5, meaning it offered less points, had a smaller draw, and less prize money (although Dubai Duty Free offer $1.3 million more than the minimum required from a Premier tournament according to Tahlak).

Dubai and Doha alternate the Premier 5 status each year which could explain why players like Kerber, Radwanska and Wozniacki skipped Dubai but went to Doha – which is the bigger tournament this season.

WTA president Micky Lawler told Gulf News that the current set-up will be discussed in a meeting next week.

Asked if the arrangement to alternate the status with Doha is working, Tahlak said: “I would say yes and no. For us it’s not a big deal to have a Premier or a Premier 5 because Dubai is Dubai. The week is good for us, it’s working, for us it’s two tournaments back-to-back, while in Doha, they have the men’s in the first week of the year and the women play now, so for them it’s a different ball game.

“For us, it’s one event, and we sell everything as one package. The only difference is that in the first week we had WTA on the net post while in the men’s week we have Fly Emirates. This Emirates deal is a great one, it’s worldwide and it’s good for us.

“For us, we had many sponsors who wanted to sponsor just one week, either the ladies’ or the men’s, but we said ‘no, we package it and sell it as one event’.

“Maybe (it’s affecting the players’ decision on whether to attend or not), I don’t know. I think both Dubai and Doha deserve the Premier 5 status. We both did well. Doha did really well for the WTA Championships for three years.

“The new strategy and plan will be discussed in a WTA board meeting next week.

“Hopefully, something changes because we’re not happy about the whole situation, and we have done a lot for the WTA and we’re still doing… we’re still global sponsors, we still like the sport, and we don’t want to penalise them because they have done well.

“But again, a tournament without players is not a tournament, and cities without spending money there is no tournament, it’s all commitment.”

Asked if he saw the problem as a lack of commitment from the players, Tahlak said: “Yes, big time. Players are the main thing.”

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Jaziri full of belief as he prepares to battle good friend Djokovic in Dubai

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Jaziri has hit with Djokovic on a number of occasions this year.

Malek Jaziri on Wednesday faces a task that many describe as ‘Mission Impossible’ when he tries to beat Novak Djokovic in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships second round but the Tunisian wildcard refuses to see it that way.

Jaziri ended a five-match losing streak and got his first win of the year by beating Mikhail Youzhny in the opening round on Monday and he’s excited to take on the World No.1.

Djokovic, a four-time champion in Dubai, is a good friend of Jaziri’s having met the North African during the IPTL in 2014 when they played on the same team – the UAE Royals.

Since then, they’ve practiced together many times at various tournaments around the world but their second round clash will be their first official match against one another.

“I feel good, I’ve been wanting to play him for a long time, so we’ll see how it goes,” Jaziri told Sport360 after his practice session.

Jaziri, who peaked at No.65 in the world rankings exactly a year ago but has now slipped to 121, is the highest ranked Arab and a crowd favourite in Dubai.

Djokovic finds him a talented individual but the Serb admits that when he first met him, he realised Jaziri was not necessarily working as hard as someone at that level typically does.

“We have very good relationship. We got closer as friends in the IPTL. He’s very laid back, very nice guy,” said Djokovic of the Tunisian.

“Obviously he wants to do well here. He’s not from Emirates, but he feels that he comes from this part of the world. He enjoys the support.

“I have seen a little of his match (against Youzhny). He played well. He improved a lot. I always thought he’s very talented, but working was not on his priority list every day,” Djokovic said with a smile.

“You know, he just enjoys life a lot. It’s great. But I think he realised that he can be better. He can play better if he worked a little bit harder, which he’s doing now over the last couple of months.

“He told me he had a great off-season and it pays off. Let’s see what happens. He plays quite different from (my first round opponent) Tommy Robredo. He’s standing closer to the line, he has flat shots and better serve. Got to be ready for it.”

Getting to know the likes of Djokovic better through the IPTL was an eye-opener for Jaziri, who got to see how the top guys operated on a day-to-day basis and how much professionalism and hard work they put in.

“I was around people that were more professional and more dedicated to tennis so maybe I changed a bit after that,” said the 32-year-old.

“I changed my mind-set, many things, I tried to practice more heading into this season.

“I feel like I’m enjoying my tennis more now, having fun, taking pleasure. I’m playing in good tournaments, facing good players, so I’m trying to enjoy it.”

Jaziri practiced several times with Djokovic in Doha and Melbourne this year and that was also a great learning opportunity for him.

“His intensity is incredible in practice. You get to how these guys practice, how they recover, how the coach and the rest of the staff works with them. Everyone has their own role and you learn a lot from observing these things,” said Jaziri, who is a former quarter-finalist in Dubai.

Jaziri is no stranger to playing big matches on centre court here at the Aviation Club. In 2013, he led Roger Federer by a set in the first round before he fell to the Swiss in three.

“That match, I was feeling the ball so well, I played like I had nothing to lose. It was a great memory even though I lost. I always wanted to play Roger and I managed to take a set,” recalls Jaziri.

“This match is different. I’m playing a guy who is winning everything, full of confidence beating all the players, he’s positive and he’s doing the right things and he’s playing maybe the best tennis of his life.

“I’ll play my game, do my best and who knows, maybe I wake up on a good day… I’ll stay focused and believe in myself. Everything is about believing. Winning or losing, that doesn’t matter, but you step on the court playing to win. It’s very important that before the match you think that you have a chance.

“I’ve always liked playing in Dubai. I have to thank Salah Tahlak and Dubai Duty Free for the wildcard. They give me everything to feel like I’m at home here. They give me confidence, I feel like they believe in me and that they want me to get a good result and that the people here enjoy watching me. When you play and you fight and people see that, they will support you more. And that’s what happens when I play here.”

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Wawrinka battles back to defeat Stakhovsky in Dubai

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Stan Wawrinka returns the ball to Sergiy Stakhovsky.

For a moment there, the Dubai crowd worried that the seeds massacre that decimated the WTA tournament here last week would carry over into the men’s event as No2 seed Stan Wawrinka stood two points away from defeat to Sergiy Stakhovsky in the first round on Tuesday night.

But Wawrinka, playing in Dubai for the first time since 2008, dug deep to recover and scrape through with a 5-7, 6-3, 7-5 victory over the tricky Ukrainian, who was serving and volleying throughout the two-hour encounter, enjoying the fast conditions of the Aviation Club centre court.

Six days earlier, Wawrinka had to save a match point to beat Stakhovsky in the second round in Marseille. He didn’t face a match point on Tuesday but it was just as close.

The Swiss two-time grand slam champion was misfiring on his backhand and couldn’t find his best game but held on to record his first ever match victory in Dubai and book a second round with Croatian qualifier Franko Skugor.

“It’s good for confidence but it was a tough match, first match. I wasn’t playing well at all. I was playing not too great today. I was struggling with the conditions, with my game. Quite fast conditions. (Ball is) Flying,” said Wawrinka, who fell in the Marseille quarter-finals last week and is in search of his best form.

“I was hesitating, always being behind. And it’s tough to play especially against him who doesn’t give you too much rhythm.

“But it’s a good win, great win for me. Not playing well, still winning, still fighting, still finding a way, playing a little bit better at the end, trying to be the aggressive player on the court.

“It’s good to have a chance to play better tomorrow.”

Wawrinka broke for 5-3 in the first set but then lost six games in a row to lose the set and fall behind 0-2 in the second.

He finally stopped the bleeding and held for 1-2. The 30-year-old got the break back on a long backhand from Stakhovsky to draw level at 3-all.

The Swiss got two break points with a smooth backhand volley and he broke for a 5-3 lead.

Wawrinka finally found his backhand as he unleashed a lethal crosscourt to get triple set point. He only needed one as he levelled the match with an ace.

The reigning French Open champion was in trouble early in the decider but a stunning forehand passing shot helped him hold serve.

Wawrinka went down 0-30 while serving to stay in the match as he inched closer to defeat. He slammed a backhand passing shot for 15-30 and barely hung on to hold for 5-5.

Stakhovsky got tight while Wawrinka refocused to create a break chance the next game, and the Swiss broke on a long passing shot attempt from his opponent.

Wawrinka closed out the match on a long backhand from Stakhovsky, holding at love.

“I play him in Marseille. I saved match point to beat him. I expected a tough match, but I wasn’t expecting to play that bad,” admitted Wawrinka, who added that he has some homework to do, to find out more about his upcoming unheralded opponent.

Skugor is the surprise package of the tournament so far. The world No188 upset James Ward and Kyle Edmund in qualifying before ousting Teymuraz Gabashvili in the first round yesterday.

Late on centre court, Nick Kyrgios survived a tough test against No7 seed Martin Klizan, overcoming the quick turnaround following his title triumph in Marseille two days earlier, to advance 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 in 91 minutes.

Klizan, a big-hitting lefty who won Rotterdam two weeks ago, committed 11 double faults, served at a poor 43 per cent first serves, and was broken six times.

Kyrgios was clearly struggling, unable to unleash the huge shots he is famous for regularly, but showed strong character in the way he fought. He spent most of the changeovers standing by the baseline, instead of sitting at his bench, and concedes it was a tough encounter to get through.

“I wasn’t really thinking that well out there. I probably just wanted to get the game going, I guess,” said Kyrgios, who next faces Mikhail Kukushkin.

“Mentally I was okay with it. I was actually pretty excited to get here and play. But obviously physically coming off the flights, it was tough.

“Yeah, I’m happy I got through. I wasn’t feeling great out there. To will myself is not a bad effort.”

Earlier in the day, No3 seed Tomas Berdych, who has reached the semi-finals or better in Dubai in four of the last five years, eased past Joao Sousa 6-1, 6-4 to set up a second round with Italian qualifier Thomas Fabbiano.

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