Dubai Duty Free Tennis: A 25-year-old world-class event, but where's the local talent?

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  • A packed house watches Federer play Ferrero in Dubai in 2005 (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty)

    This article was originally published in issue No.2 of Racquet magazine. Racquet is a new quarterly tennis magazine that celebrates the art, ideas, style and culture that surround tennis. You can subscribe here.

    The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is such a high-quality tournament hosted in one of the coziest, most understated settings.

    I remember the first time I walked around the Aviation Club in Dubai, almost a decade ago. I was taking a stroll across the cobblestone, making my way through the bars and restaurants that lined the perimeter and thinking to myself that this has got to be the cutest little tennis venue on earth.

    On one side of the main stadium, there’s an Irish Village – an outdoor pub with wooden benches and live music, which has been a popular spot year-round for the past two decades. And there’s a small garden nearby that has scattered bean bags where people can hang out, sip beer, and watch the tennis on a large screen, or feed the ducks in a nearby pond.

    In a city that only deals in extremes – having the biggest, fastest, tallest, fanciest of everything – this small tennis club in the heart of Dubai feels like the antithesis of all that. Yet it successfully plays host to an event that elevated the status of the emirate, placing Dubai firmly on the global sports map, which is precisely what the state’s rulers set out to achieve by staging this tennis tournament to begin with.

    On the sidelines of the 2005 Dubai men’s tournament, a stunt video of Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing tennis on the helipad of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel went viral – organizers claim that three billion people have watched it – and it put the event and the city in the spotlight like never before. The powers that be in Dubai had a strategy and it was working.

    Federer and Agassi on the helipad of Burj Al Arab hotel (Photo by David Cannon for Dubai Duty Free Via Getty)

    Federer and Agassi on the helipad of Burj Al Arab hotel (Photo by David Cannon for DDF via Getty)

    But as the tournament – and Dubai – grew in stature, receiving rave reviews from the top players each year, the fact that no Emirati tennis talent emerged as a consequence was both undeniable and peculiar. Privately-run facilities and academies popped up in large numbers around the country, but they were mostly catering to foreign residents, not locals.

    The professional circuit came to the Arabian Gulf region in 1993 with two new ATP tournaments held in Doha, Qatar, and Dubai, UAE. The vision of Sheikh Mohamed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the vice president/prime minister of the country, was to bring some of the biggest sporting events in the world to the emirate, in order to raise its status and relevance globally. He also believed sports tourism would benefit the country greatly, and he was not wrong.

    Tournament owners, Dubai Duty Free, offered up total prize money of $1,000,000 for the inaugural edition in ’93, which was almost double what other events of the same tier paid, and organizers went above and beyond to spoil the players, putting them up in fancy hotels and catering to their ever need. Karel Novacek, a former world No8 from the Czech Republic, beat Frenchman Fabrice Santoro in the event’s inaugural final.

    “They put on a great spread to greet us at the Aviation Club of Dubai,” recalls Novacek in an interview with “Really, they did what it took to make us speak well about the tournament to our colleagues on the tour. We felt all their ambition to become a state that mattered internationally.”

    There was understandable skepticism regarding the tournament at the start, with the Arabian Gulf having virtually no tennis tradition. The top seed in 1993 was ranked No17 in the world. Today, both the men’s and women’s weeks regularly feature at least four or five top-10 players.

    Each year, the facilities and perks have dramatically improved, to the extent that Dubai Duty Free built an on-site five-star hotel, which has been hosting the players, their teams, and invited media since 2013.

    But while the Dubai showpiece consistently attracts the Federers and Djokovics of the world, the local talent is nowhere to be seen. The tournament celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, yet within that quarter of a century, no Emirati male or female player has risen through the ranks.

    Karel Novacek beat Fabrice Santoro in the inaugural Dubai final (photo via DDF Tennis)

    Karel Novacek beat Fabrice Santoro in the inaugural Dubai final (photo via DDF Tennis)

    The nation’s sole ranked player is a 34-year-old called Omar Behroozian, who is currently hovering in the 1600s and peaked at 805 back in 2003. Behroozian has been considered the UAE’s top player for the past 15 years, and was given a main draw wildcard nine times between 2001 and 2012. He has won an average of 3.4 games in each of the nine first rounds he lost in his home city.

    With a serious dearth in local prospects, the occasional beneficiaries of wildcards are other Arab players who are in desperate need of opportunities like this.

    Fatma Al Nabhani, from the neighboring Oman, is the only man or woman from the Gulf region ranked in the top-500 and is the first professional female to emerge from the Gulf. The 25-year-old is an anomaly, especially growing up in a region that has cultural barriers that discourage women from taking up sport. But there is a reason why she is that one exception.

    Al Nabhani grew up in a tennis-playing family, with and Egyptian mother, who planted the tennis seed in her and her brothers, Mohammed and Khaled. Growing up in Muscat, there were never enough girls to make up a full draw for a tennis tournament so Al Nabhani would compete against the boys and defeat them. She was ranked as high as 33 in the world as a junior and reached the top-400 in her first year as a pro.

    With Oman being a driving distance from the UAE, and Al Nabhani being a true ‘Khaleeji’ (someone from the Gulf) trailblazer, she should be an obvious choice for Dubai when it comes to allocating wildcards but in the 10 years she has featured in the tournament, only once was she given a spot in the main draw; all other nine invites were for the qualifying rounds.

    Al Nabhani attended the event since she was five-years-old, and is puzzled by the fact that no local Emirati has managed to emerge on the tennis scene during the 25 years of the tournament’s existence.

    Fatma Al Nabhani (r) with Anastasia Myskina at the 2006 Dubai tournament. (RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty)

    Fatma Al Nabhani (r) with Anastasia Myskina at the 2006 Dubai tournament. (Rabih Moghrabi)

    “I feel they stage this tournament for a different reason, not for the purpose of developing UAE tennis,” says Al Nabhani. “The tennis federation in the UAE plays a very small role in this tournament. The only thing they do is the kids’ day, and you see some young Emiratis taking part. I wish hopefully that they could do something about it to improve the tennis in the UAE but I feel that the expats benefit more than the local people from this tournament” she said.

    The keyword here is “expats”. The UAE population make-up is unique with Emiratis amounting to just over 10 per cent of people living here, the rest all being foreigners. Most expats treat Dubai as a transient stop and many spend just a couple of years before moving on to someplace else. Building a lasting legacy in a population that is continuously changing has been a challenge.

    As for the Emiratis themselves, not enough is being done to get them interested in tennis, and those who are interested have no place to go train since the federation has no national tennis center to cater to its players.

    “Obviously that doesn’t make sense at all,” Tunisian Selima Sfar, the only Arab woman to ever crack the top-100, says of the lack of facilities dedicated to local UAE players. “It would be hypocritical of them to ask the question ‘why are there no players?’ because the answer is so obvious: You’re doing nothing to have a player, basically.”

    “There are so many academies in Dubai, the facilities are great but all of them are private. I think step number one is for the federation to have a center where you welcome the players and you make sure that they have around the right coaches, which is the hardest thing,” Sfar said. “You have to give them the right environment. It’s also very important to spread the culture. It doesn’t come overnight.”

    The 39-year-old Sfar, who is now retired and works as a commentator for beIN Sports in Doha, was ranked as high as No75 in the world in 2001. Her parents are both doctors and she had no frame of reference as an Arab young girl looking to pursue a career in tennis, so she left her home in Tunisia when she was a teenager and moved to Biarritz to train alongside Nathalie Tauziat, who is French.

    Serena Williams getting a henna tattoo during the Dubai tournament (RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty)

    Serena Williams getting a henna tattoo during the Dubai tournament (Rabih Moghrabi/AFP)

    “It’s difficult for us as women,” Sfar said. “For me I had to leave my country and my family at 13. So first of all I had to have a family that has enough money to support me because it’s very expensive. To accept to send me abroad, with no examples to follow. Let’s say there are 10 Tunisian or 10 Arab women who made it before me, that would have made it easier, and if anybody judges you and says ‘you’re crazy’ you can say ‘come on, they did it, so can I’. Nobody did it before me.”

    In many Gulf states, the cultural obstacles to overcome when it comes to women competing in sport are tough to tackle and they start with something as simple as an outfit.

    Wearing short skirts and sleeveless tops does not necessarily conform to Muslim attire but Al Nabhani found a workaround that made her feel comfortable while playing. During competition, the Omani wears leggings underneath her skirt and dons a long-sleeved shirt. She is sponsored by Nike and says she’s lucky they offer the styles she needs to complete her special kit.

    “Obviously when I was in juniors and I was younger, I used to wear skirts and play normally. Later on, just for me to be comfortable and to respect my culture and where I come from, I tried to create my own style and thankfully it’s approved by the ITF and the WTA,” Al Nabhani said.

    “I’m so happy because I created my own thing and a lot of other girls from the Gulf now feel encouraged to play tennis knowing they can cover up a bit and play in something that’s comfortable for them.

    “But the thing is, whenever I go to tournaments abroad, every single time, all the girls ask me ‘how the hell are you playing like this? It’s so hot’. But your body is used to it. I don’t feel I’m hot when I’m playing in it. I’m comfortable.”

    Both Al Nabhani and Sfar are used to fielding questions about where they come from. During a talk arranged by JP Morgan at the Dubai event last year that brought together local Emirati women and professional players, Sfar was asked if she ever faced trouble as an Arab woman traveling around the world for her sport.

    “Yes I did, ”she said. “Because when you go to the States or Europe, because they haven’t seen Arab female tennis players before, they don’t know, they look at the Arab world or our culture or our religion and sometimes they have the wrong image. In a way you’re like an ambassador to show to the rest of the world that of course we can do sport, we are free, we have exactly the same possibilities.”

    The main issue that affected Sfar during her playing days was trying to obtain entry visas for all the countries she had to travel to. It is a continuous struggle for Arabs who need to travel for work to this very day.

    “Sometimes I missed so many tournaments because of visas, and if I didn’t miss a tournament, I’d miss three days of practice because I’m queuing at the embassy to get my visa,” she said.

    Younes El Aynaoui during the 2007 edition of the tournament. (RABIH MOGHRABI/AFP/Getty)

    Younes El Aynaoui during the 2007 edition of the tournament. (Rabih Moghrabi/AFP)

    Younes El Aynaoui, the Moroccan who is the most successful Arab tennis player in history, says that combining sport and studies needs to become a viable option in the region where many parents encourage — or force — their children to give up sport in favor of academics by age 16 or 17.

    The 45-year-old, who peaked at No14 in the world in 2003, pursued a career in the sport against his parents’ wishes and ended up reaching four career grand slam quarter-finals.

    “I was an exception, I didn’t listen to my parents, I was a bad son, at one point I went against them,” says El Aynaoui. “My brother is an economist, he works in the Bank of Morocco and he listened to my dad. I gave everything for the tennis and thank God, if I had to do it again, I would do it again.”

    Despite the challenges, El Aynaoui is nevertheless baffled by the lack of players emerging from the Arab world.

    “I’m surprised that in the Middle East you don’t have more players because those tournaments (in Dubai and Doha) it’s almost been 25 years now since they started. I had the chance to have one big tournament in my life in Morocco and that was it, I said this is what I want to be, I want to be part of this tournament one day and that’s how my dream came true,” he said.

    The UAE tennis federation, Tennis Emirates, has little involvement in the Dubai ATP/WTA events even though the tournament director, Salah Tahlak, is both a Dubai Duty Free employee and a board member of the country’s sport’s governing body.

    According to federation secretary general Sara Baker, Dubai Duty Free offers Tennis Emirates financial support for development and several grassroots projects are already underway.

    “Our only problem right now is finding female trainers that speak Arabic. There are lots of English-speaking coaches but when it comes to locals, if we were to go to public schools, you’ll have to have someone who speaks the Arabic language in order to do that,” Baker said.

    Djokovic makes a splash in Dubai.

    Djokovic makes a splash in Dubai.

    For the pros though, Dubai is an oasis.

    The emirate has become a prime destination for players during the offseason. I recall walking through the grounds of a beach resort here several years ago and I accidentally found Federer, Kim Clijsters, and Svetlana Kuznetsova all training side by side, preparing for the new season. Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic, Andy Murray, Ana Ivanovic, Angelique Kerber and many more have spent time in Dubai practicing, making use of the immaculate courts and facilities available to them at the hotel of their choosing.

    Federer bought an apartment in Dubai almost a decade ago and he’s been a regular here ever since. Many others have followed suit, with the latest being Lucas Pouille, who lives just a couple of buildings down the road from the Swiss.

    It is hard to understand though how such superstars can spend so much time here without anyone thinking of a clever way to utilize their presence in a manner that could benefit young local talent. Instead, the focus is once again on the big tournaments, and how they can possibly get bigger. “I have a vision, if there is ever a fifth Grand Slam, then I would like it to be in Dubai,” Tennis Emirates vice president Abdulrahman Falaknaz told Gulf News.

    Dubai may be lacking in several areas – local tennis prospects, national facilities for Emiratis to train, a coherent development program–but ambition is certainly not one of them. Time will tell how far it can take them.

    This article was originally published in issue No.2 of Racquet magazine. You can subscribe here.