Al Shindagah Magazine Top Tennis Action

Thirty-two of the world's top 200 women's tennis players converge on Dubai in March for the second Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge.

Organisers of the second Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge admit they have been overwhelmed by the magnificent response to the tournament, which is striving ahead in its bid to bring the worldıs top women players to the Middle East.

As Al Shindagah went to press, 32 of the worldıs top 200 women players were finalising their travel plans for their first competitive trip to the Middle East, to compete for $75,000 in prize money and valuable ranking points.

Itıs a remarkable growth for a tournament which was only inaugurated last year with the aim of promoting the game in the region, but if it carries on blossoming at this rate, it wonıt be long before the planetıs best will be heading to the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club to serve up a truly world-class event. ³Every player competing in the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge this year will have a world ranking in the top 200, which is astonishing when you consider that last year we only had one,² said tournament director Samer Ghazi, who is also Recreation Manager at the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club.

"Ten players are ranked in the top 100, while two top 50 players are also making their way to Dubai. Itıs really unbelievable to think that we have got this big in just our second event."

Ghazi received a total of 195 entries from 38 countries, and a strict vetting procedure finalises the starting line-up for the March 1-7 event.

Held under the patronage of H.H. Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Deputy Ruler of Dubai and Minister of Finance and Industry, the tournamentıs top seed is Sarah Pitkowski of France who is rated 32 in the world. Her countryman Natalie Dechy stands 12 places behind her on the rankings, while another French star playing in Dubai, Emille Loit, is ranked 52.

But while many think one of these three names will be on the $13,750 winnerıs cheque, plenty of attention will be paid to 15-year-old Jelena Dokic, who is highly fancied as the next force in the world of womenıs tennis.

The young Australian has the distinction of being rated as the Number One junior in the world, and if expert opinion is to be believed, Dokic is the hottest talent to hit womenıs tennis since Martina Hingis. Many believe she has the potential to become the greatest Aussie player of all time. While age is against her at the moment, Dokic will mature onto the full circuit on April 12 when she turns 16 and eligible to play the maximum number of tournaments under the WTA ruling. At the moment, she can only play in eight tournaments a year, a precaution introduced by the gameıs world governing body to avoid burn-out in young players. Dokic was discovered as a 12-year-old and made her first appearance on the international scene last year when she represented her country in a Federation Cup match, dropping just seven games in four sets. She made her mark at the Australian Open too by enthralling a capacity Court One crowd to beat Kristina Brandi in the opening round. Her luck soon ran out though as she came up against eventual champion Hingis in the next round.

Providing her talent is nurtured in the same way as Hingis, fans at the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge could get to see a legend in the making and, who knows? she may even return to Dubai one day in the future as a world number one. Dokic is in good company in Dubai as a wealth of experienced players blended in with a clutch of newcomers are set to provide a feast of action.

One player likely to set the male pulses running is Jana Kardarr who was voted the "sexiest player on the world tour" in 1996. She is ranked 97 on the latest list released by WTA. With all this talent heading to Dubai, itıs no wonder that Ghazi has been wearing one of the biggest smiles around the emirate in recent weeks.

"I have been told by the International Tennis Federation that 195 entries is the biggest they have ever come across for a $75,000 event," he said. "The director is so impressed, she is even thinking of coming to Dubai to witness the tournament. "When I sent out the forms to the tennis federations around the world, I expected that maybe I'd get one or two top 100 players to reply, but to get so many, it really is incredible. "The whole idea of the event is to promote Dubai as a sporting venue, so for a start you have 195 players talking about it, then you have their coaches, friends and families, so it is bringing the city to the the attention of people who might otherwise not have come across it. "The tournament was promoted at the Australian Open by the International Tennis Federation, and it received widespread interest over there.

"But I think the reason for the successful response is because it went so well last year. All the players expressed a wish to return and I think word-and-mouth has proved extremely beneficial to us. "The players were impressed by the excellent hospitality they received at the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club, and feedback has been good." One of the players from last year, Darina Mecova of the Czech Republic, was so impressed with the welcome, she returned six months later to take up a job as the resortıs tennis professional. The total prize money on offer is $75,000, making the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge the worldıs most lucrative womenıs tournament in the world that week. The inaugural event carried an overall purse of $25,000 last year. Equally important to the players though is the world ranking points up for grabs in Dubai. The winner gets 54 points, runner-up receives 38 while the semi finalists pick up 24 points for their troubles. Two professional umpires are attending from Portugal and a temporary stand has been erected to accommodate the large number of spectators hoping to catch a glimpse of the action.

The man responsible for initiating the event is Khalaf Al Habtoor, chairman of the Al Habtoor Group. He is a keen tennis player and was seen at the courts every day during the first Challenge, 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 event and itıs their dedication to promoting the game that will undoubtedly see this tournament mature even further in the future. "I think the future is very bright for this event," said Ghazi. "ITF are talking about introducing $100,000 events next year and we would certainly be keen to make the step up again. "I wouldnıt like to commit myself by saying that Dubai will host a WTA event in the future, but at the pace this tournament is growing, it is certainly a possibility.

"Dubai has proved itself to be a world-class sporting venue, and this tournament is going a long way to enhancing that reputation. "There is talk of building a permanent tennis stadium at the Metropolitan Resort & Beach Club, and that will enable us to take the tournament to another level, but all that is further down the line and the most important thing for now is to ensure the second Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge builds on the success of the first." Hungaryıs Kiran Najy won last yearıs tournament to cap off a superb week of tennis, defeating Indonesiaıs Wynne Parkusia in a full-blooded final.

Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge facts and figures

Format: Singles (32)
Doubles (16 pairs)
Draw: Four players qualify from 32 qualifiers; three wild card entries; 25 invited players.
Singles prize money ($75,000 total):
Winner $13,750 (54 ranking points)
Runner Up $6750 (38 ranking points)
Semi finalists $3250 (24 ranking points)
Quarter finalists $1750 (14 ranking points)