The Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge is entering its third year in Dubai and Frank Stamford meets the tournament director to find out what we can expect to see at the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club in April
When one innocent looking 16 year-old confidently told local journalists covering last year’s Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge that she intended to become the world’s number one women’s player, few people sat up and took notice.
Jelena Dokic had just won her first round match at the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club and was already attracting considerable interest in the tennis world with reports coming out of her native Australia that she was set to become the game’s latest teen sensation.
Dokic departed from Dubai a week later with her tail between her legs having list in the quarterfinals, showing only slashes of the form that we were promised in the build-up to the event. But few who saw those flashes of brilliance in Dubai doubted her talent and ability, and four months later she rose to international prominence with a charge through to the quarterfinals of Wimbledon. One of the scalps she picked up along the way was that of undisputed world number one Martina Hingis. Another top player she scalped was French ace Mary Pierce before succumbing to Alexandra Stevenson.
Unfortunately Dokic failed to follow up that fortune during the remainder of the year, but finished her first full professional circuit ranked at 39, quite an achievement for the Croatian-born starlet who is coached by her father, Damir. “Jelena was an extremely polite girl when she came to the tournament and was an instant hit with the local press and spectators alike,” said Samer Ghazi, tournament director for Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge. “ She spent plenty of time chatting to people and was very gracious when she eventually lost in the quarters.”
One year down the line and Ghazi is hoping that Dokic will be leading a star-studded line-up for the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge 2000, which will dominate Dubai’s sporting action from April 1-9. The Australian, now 17, has been invited to return and with Dubai hosting the only WTA tournament during that particular week there is a good chance of her appearing.
“We are expecting 12-15 players from the top 100 to be playing in Dubai. This is compared to eight from last year,’ said Ghazi. “I don’t expect any from the top 20 to be playing because they usually only play in tournaments offering over US$500,000.”
The tournament will be offering the same prize money as last year – US$75,000 – but this year, it has been included in a new category introduced by the International Tennis Federation (ITF).
Ghazi explained: “We have been included in a new circuit called the ‘US$75,000 plus hospitality’ which basically means we now take care of all the players’ expenses whilst they are here. Inclusion in this category also raises the number of ranking points on offer to the participants. The winner gets 65 points, followed by 46 points for the runner-up, 29 points for the semi0finalists, and 17 points for the quarter-finalists. This is compared to 54, 38, 24, and 14 last year. This is just as much an incentive for the better players to come here as the prize money on offer”
For such a young tournament, Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge has already garnished a fine reputation in tennis circles, and this year’s even will certainly be doing its best to further enhance that reputation.
Seating capacity at the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club is to be increased, while the International Tennis Federation will be sending a circuit director to observe the event and to take the role of match referee.
“The ITF is expecting something big this year and this is why they are sending along a circuit director,” said Ghazi. “We are also flying in three umpires of gold and silver badge standard. Last year we only had two so that is another development for 2000.”
The format as last year, with 32 players entered into the main draw. Twenty-eight of those will be entered directly into four qualifiers. The qualifiers will take place before the main event with a further 32 players battling for the four main draw places.”
The final line-up will not be available until right up to the event itself, but fans of tennis in Dubai can rest assured that they will be treated to some of the best players on the fringes of big-time tennis.
Sponsors have shown a keen interest this year with HSBC already confirmed as a major sponsor and other big brands expected to follow suit. The timing of Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge is also crucial to its success. Not only is it the biggest women’s tennis tournament in the world during that particular week, it is also the biggest sporting even being held locally.
“We didn’t want to hold it at the same times as the Dubai Shopping Festival because there is so much going on during that month. We chose these dates very carefully,” said Ghazi. “The tournament doesn’t clash with anything major so it provides and opportunity for the people of the UAE to come and watch some quality action free of charge because nobody has to pay to get in on any of these days.”
Last year’s champion was Katarina Srebotnik who is expected to return to Dubai to defend her title. The former Wimbledon Junior Champion defeated Luxembourg’s Anne Kremer 6-1, 6-1, for the winners’ cheque of US$13,750. Kremer’s consolation was the runners-up purse of US$6,750. The Slovenian was in fine form all week and did not drop a single set on the way to her biggest payday.
The doubles winners were Asa Carlsson of Sweden, and Laurence Courtois, of Belgium. Rumors were abound just before Christmas that tennis legend Steffi Graff, who retired last year, was going to make a guest appearance in the stands at the tournament, but Ghazi scotched that as idol gossip and journalists trying to create a story.
“Obviously it would be a big boost to have someone of Steffi’s stature appearing at our tournament but that is simply not the case this year,” he said.
The UAE Tennis Boom
The growth of tennis in the UAE is one of the sporting success stories of recent years in the Middle East. Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge is the one and only international women’s tournament being held in the region, and Khalaf Al Habtoor, chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, introduced it three years ago.
A keen player himself, Mr. Habtoor can be seen playing at the courts of the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club almost every day of the week and his personal support and close interest in the Challenge is one of the main reasons for its success. Mr. Habtoor has attended each and every day of the past two tournaments along with the chairman of Tennis Emirates, Sheikh Hasher bin Maktoum Al Maktoum, Director of Dubai Information.
Both have taken a keen personal interest in the tournament and it is their dedication to promoting the game that will undoubtedly see this tournament mature even more in the future.
“This tournament has played a significant role in promoting tennis in the region, particularly amongst the women,” said Ghazi. “There has been a marked increase in the number of ladies coming down to play here on a regular basis over the past couple of years, and I have no doubt that the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge is a key reason.”
THE DUBAI TENNIS OPEN
Dubai is no stranger to hosting the world’s best tennis stars. For the past eight years, the Dubai Tennis Open has been one of the most prestigious tournaments on the men’s ATP Tour, regularly attracting the finest players from across the globe.
The 2000 Dubai Tennis Open was served a perfect ace n the even of its Millennium event in February by picking up the 1999 Tournament of the Year accolade awarded by the Association of Tennis Professionals. The professionals make the decision and ATP officials who attended the even the previous year with a majority voting for Dubai ahead of a host of other tournaments scattered around the professional tennis circuit. The Millennium tournament also reached its widest ever television audience, with 350 million people across the world able to turn in to the action at the Dubai Tennis Stadium.
In addition, almost 50 international journalists ensure the matches were reported in more newspapers and magazines than previously. The Tournament of the Year accolade, the ultimate recognition highly sought after by all ATP Tour tournaments, joins seven other accolades presented to the tournament for excellence since it began in 1933.
While the 2000 tournament lacked the big names of previous Opens, it nevertheless gave Dubai the perfect opportunity to view some of the best players coming through the professional ranks. One such player was Juan-Carlos Ferrero of Spain who celebrated his 20th birthday by beating Moroccan sensation.
Karim Alami to reach the final. Unfortunately the crowd’s favorite failed to maintain his form and lost to tournament top seed Nicholas Keifer of Germany by two sets to one. Keifer’s reward was US$137,000 and the keys to a luxury BMW, while the Spaniard picked up $83,000 as a consolation.
There’s already plenty of speculation surrounding next year’s tournament, including a possible switch of fates to January or September, but one thing is guaranteed: the Dubai Tennis Open will continue as one of the ATP Tour’s leading events. The dearth of big names for the eight-day tournament understandably affected the attendance figures with a majority of fans deciding to spend the chilly week in the comfort of their homes. However, every competing player was ranked inside the top 60, which speaks volumes for the tournament, taking into consideration that it clashed with major tournaments in San Jose and Marseilles.