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by: Ben Smalley

  This year’s Dubai Tennis Championships followed the formbook with the World No. 1 men’s and women’s players, Roger Federer and Lindsay Davenport, showing their class to lift the two singles trophies, but there was plenty of drama and the emergence of a number of new stars along the way.

  The Dubai Tennis Stadium was packed for almost every match, aided by the presence of so many of the world’s top players, including six of the top 10 ranked women’s players and American legend Andre Agassi, who was playing in Dubai for the first time.

  The two-week tournament began with the Dubai Duty Free Men’s Open which saw Federer successfully defend the title he won in both 2004 and 2003, beating Croatian Ivan Ljubicic 6-1, 7-6, 6-3 in the final to make it three Dubai wins in a row.

  It was also Federer’s 16th ATP championship final win in a row and third of the year, underscoring the Swiss superstar’s remarkable dominance of the modern day game - former greats Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe only managed 12 straight title wins during their careers.

  In the Women’s Open, honours went to American top seed Davenport who eventually proved too strong for the challenge of 20 year-old Jelena Jankovic winning 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 in the final. It was Davenport’s 46th championship title and the 28 year-old promised to return to Dubai to defend the title if she is still playing next year.

  "It was a close match and it came down to a few points in the end. I wanted to win this final so much," she said.

  Jankovic, ranked 28th in the world, emerged as one of the stars of the tournament. The Serbian is however no stranger to Dubai, having won her first professional title at the Sixth Habtoor Tennis Challenge in October 2003 while aged just 18. With many of the winners of the Habtoor Tennis Challenge having gone on to become stars of the women’s game, the omens bode well for Jankovic‘s future.

  Perhaps the biggest crowd pleaser, however, was Indian sensation Sania Mirza who won her first two games, including the scalp of U.S Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, before finally being knocked out in the quarterfinals by Jankovic.

  Mirza, who recently became the first Indian woman to win a WTA Tour event by winning the Hyderabad Open, was cheered on by thousands of passionate Indian supporters, as well as many ‘neutrals’ in all three of her games.

  There was disappointment, however, for the Williams sisters with Venus knocked out in the first round and Serena withdrawing injured from her semi-final clash with Jankovic, having lost the first set 6-0 and while losing 3-4 in the second. Serena later blamed the type of balls used in the tournament for causing her to suffer a right shoulder tendon strain.

  “Honestly, I think it’s the balls,” she said. “The last time I played with these same balls, I had the same problem with my shoulder. My arm is hurting really badly. I did not want to continue as I did not want to see this injury leading to another problem.”

  With the Dubai Tennis Championships starting with the men’s competition for the first time, all eyes were on the pick of the first round matches which pitted Britain’s top two players, Tim Henman and Greg Rudeski, against each other in what was billed ‘The Battle of Britain.’

  Henman, who accepted a late ‘Wild Card’ entry to the tournament, had to fight back from one set down to eventually beat his compatriot, before going on to book a place in the quarter finals against Ljubicic by seeing off the challenge of Igor Andreev from Russia in the second round.

  Crowd favourite Andre Agassi was making his first appearance in Dubai and ensured capacity crowds for each of his games. The 34 year-old American may be nearing the end of his playing career, but he showed that he still has what it takes, sweeping aside Radek Stepanek, Feliciano Lopez and Nikolay Davydenko in straight sets in his first three matches to set up a mouth-watering semi-final clash with Federer.

  The clash of the two biggest names in the men’s tournament produced another capacity crowd at Centre Court, but the match proved to be a fairly one-sided affair with current Wimbledon and US Open champion Federer taking just 51 minutes to breeze past the American 6-3, 6-1 in an awesome display of power and perfection. It was Agassi’s sixth successive defeat at the hands of Federer since beating him in the final of the Miami Tennis Masters Series in 2002.

  In the other semi-final, Ljubicic produced 13 aces on his way to powering past Spaniard Tommy Robredo in straight sets to set up a repeat of the finals of the World Indoor Championships in Rotterdam the week before and the Doha Open earlier in the year.

  Having won both finals in Holland and Qatar against Ljubicic, Federer started the match as clear favourite and took the first set 6-1. However, sensing a possible whitewash, the vocals crowd rallied behind Ljubicic who battled back to take the second set on a tiebreak. Federer then took a 2-0 lead in the final set before the Croat broke back and held serve to take it to 2-2. It was a spirited comeback by Ljubicic but Federer soon broke again and went on to serve out the game 6-3 and lift the Dubai trophy for the third year in succession.

  In the Men’s Doubles, the unseeded Czech pairing of Radek Stepanek and Martin Damm upset fourth seeds Fabrice Santoro and Jonas Bjorkman 6-2, 6-4 in the final to pull-off a well-deserved victory, while the world No. 1 pairing of Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suarez powered their way to a 6-7, 6-2, 6-1 win against Alicia Molik and Svetlana Kuznetsova to pick up their 27th Women’s Doubles title.

  Away from the action on the courts, the biggest names in world tennis found time to enjoy the warmth, hospitality and some of the attractions for which Dubai is rightly famous.

  The Williams sisters were spotted enjoying an afternoon on the beach, with Venus and Serena taking a camel ride by the Burj Al Arab and visiting a henna tattoo artist.

  The two reportedly hate competing against each other, so they rarely enter the same non-Grand Slam events, but Venus apparently had so much fun at last year's tournament that she convinced her younger sibling to compete in Dubai this year.

  Andre Agassi and Roger Federer played a match on the helipad of the Burj Al Arab as part of a promotional photo shoot, and Tim Henman took time out from his schedule to visit The Palm. Federer, meanwhile, revealed he might buy a holiday home in Dubai.

  “I am considering buying property here,” the World No. 1 told journalists at a post-match conference. “I am looking around to see whether I can choose a good place. I feel very welcome here.”

  However, the biggest frenzy of excitement came when rising Indian tennis sensation Sania Mirza paid a visit to Dubai’s Indian High School. Having just defeated reigning U.S Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova the night before, the 18 year-old was welcomed by hundreds of star-struck students.

  Mirza burst upon the tennis world by becoming the first Indian woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam, before falling 6-1 6-4 to eventual Australian Open champion Serena Williams. Two weeks later Mirza made history again, winning the final of the Hyderabad Open in front of Congressional President Sonia Gandhi to become the first Indian woman to win a WTA Tour event.

  During the school visit, Mirza spoke to the students about the sacrifices needed to succeed and offered plenty of practical advice to the wide-eyed youngsters.

  “Whatever it is you do, whether it is studying, working, or playing sport, you have to be focused and determined but most of all the fun should be a part of everything it is you do,” she said.

  The students also had the chance to ask their hero some questions, with Mirza openly talking about her hobbies, how she relaxes, what’s important to her, how she balanced school and tennis, and how she started playing the game. Her answers were often given enthusiastic applause, with the biggest response coming after her answer to what her motto is. “It is nice to be important, but more important to be nice,” she replied.


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