John Lickrish: Mubadala World Tennis Championship 'put Abu Dhabi on the map'

The CEO of orgsnisers Flash Entertainment on welcoming back the likes of Nadal and Murray and plans to have a women's tournament in the future

As the UAE celebrated its golden jubilee this month, the ever popular Mubadala World Tennis Championship marks its return to the Abu Dhabi calendar after it was cancelled in 2020 due to the pandemic.

The 13th edition of the capital showpiece will take place from December 16-18 and will feature a stellar line-up comprising Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray, Dominic Thiem, Andrey Rublev, Casper Ruud, and Denis Shapovalov for the men’s tournament, and a women’s clash between reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu and this year’s Olympic gold medallist Belinda Bencic.

Tournament owners Flash Entertainment had acquired the necessary permission to stage the event in 2020 with limited capacity, but the uncertainty surrounding the start date of the 2021 Australian Open, which dictated when all the top tennis players needed to board a plane to Melbourne, ultimately proved too challenging for organisers to hold MWTC and guarantee a strong field.

Back with a bang

Earlier this month, the Mubadala tower was lit up with faces of the players, showcasing the different match-ups in store, as excitement continues to build for the upcoming championship.

“We can all look forward to congregating in an open space in a nice time of year, watching some of the best tennis players, men and women, in the world,” John Lickrish, the CEO of Flash Entertainment, told The National.

“It’s a really nice environment, there’s lots of open spaces, and we have high-level competition, where athletes are trying to establish themselves against their competitors, where they are in the season that’s coming up ahead of some big tournaments.”

Lickrish has been involved with the championship since its inception in 2009 and has witnessed its growth as it brought world-class tennis to Abu Dhabi for the first time and built programmes like the Mubadala Tennis in Schools and the Mubadala Community Cup.

Building a legacy

Young kids get to take part in special clinics with the players each year, fans get a chance to watch the pros during practice and get up close and personal with them during the autograph sessions.

Lickrish recalls how the concept was initially pitched as an opportunity to take advantage of Zayed Sports City, which at the time was under-utilised and mostly housed offices.

He believes part of MWTC’s legacy is how it galvanised Zayed Sports City into becoming a multi-purpose hub for all things sports in the capital.

“If you see how Zayed Sports City has really grown from there, where it was really not used at all to kind of a vibrant place now, that’s nice,” said Lickrish. “I think it’s really brought the facility itself into the public domain.

“The government builds these facilities because they want it to be part of the social structure and part of the community and doing the things we’ve done has definitely pushed those things into the public realm, so that’s pretty great for me.”

Changing perceptions

Lickrish is also proud of how the tournament has played its part in helping Abu Dhabi develop into an important host city for global sports events. Having the likes of Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Serena and Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova compete at MWTC helped raise the emirate's profile.

“I think it’s put really Abu Dhabi on the map, it’s a great exposure piece for us. We had international coverage across 140 countries around the world, which is quite exciting. It shows the diversity of what’s happening and exposes and brings light to what Abu Dhabi’s like,” he explained.

“I think still people have a very narrow perception of what the UAE and Abu Dhabi is; you know, fast cars, expensive buildings and Formula One, but this shows a different side and it’s really good to get maybe negative perceptions of the Middle East, in general, broken down over time, which we have done as well.”

Lickrish admits that when he was first putting together the inaugural staging of MWTC, he didn’t necessarily have longevity in mind. Things were happening fast; Flash Entertainment was just starting out and they were given “a very broad mandate and a very little time to kind of activate, we needed to show some successes”.

Given its time slot in December, when players are wrapping up their pre-season training and are keen to see where their games are at ahead of a new campaign, MWTC managed to showcase high-quality competitive tennis despite it being a three-day exhibition tournament.

“When we were selling it, I said, ‘Look, if you put the top six players in the world together in an arena, there’s no way that they’re going to be goofing around and not playing serious, they’re not built like that’,” Lickrish said.

‘We’ll have more women players in 2022’

Over time, the tournament evolved, adding third-place and fifth-place playoffs – an idea Lickrish said was initially floated by Federer – and since 2017, inviting two women players each year to contest a single exhibition match. The goal is bring more women next year to have a full line-up, akin to the men’s.

“From the beginning we looked at it and thought, 'how do we incorporate women into the tournament?' There’s been some different proposals internally that we’ve looked at, also through bringing a female-only tournament as well,” said Lickrish.

“I’ve always thought it would be better to combine the two things. First of all, it’s really what we’re doing with budgets that we have, we’ve decided, and through some of our partners, we can bring women in. I didn’t want to do it as a one-off, I didn’t want to do it as a kitschy thing. Unfortunately Covid really interrupted our plans, we’re just kind of taking it easy this year.

“But we want to incorporate more women into the tournament and get it up to equal standing as the men. That is the direction that I want to take the tournament.

“I think it’s important. It would come up here and there, oh let’s do this, and I said, ‘Look, I don’t want to do this once, you’ve got to make sure that we can do this every year’. So it’s been very important that there has been consistency.

“We’re looking to broaden that and we’ll have more players in the 2022 tournament, that’s kind of the plan, to slowly integrate this tournament, because we think it’s important.”

Lickrish also says he hopes to feature Arab talent at the tournament in the future.

The F1 factor

This year, the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Formula One Grand Prix and the MWTC have fallen on back-to-back weekends, which Lickrish believes could attract more fans to the tennis event at Zayed Sports City.

“I’m a big believer of having a lot of events coinciding around the same time in the same area, not directly in competition with,” he added. “I think it’s a great proposition; you look at Abu Dhabi, you say, ‘Oh there’s Formula One on the weekend, I can go there Saturday, Sunday, see the qualifying and the race, and then finish on a Sunday and then go into the tennis tournament a few days after; I can hit the beaches, go to the Louvre, hang in some of the hotels, hit the water parks’. This is how I decide to go on vacations, looking at what’s available to you.

“I know there’s people like my wife who would absolutely do everything that’s available to them. So I think it’s a huge advantage for us and it really shows what a great destination Abu Dhabi can be, especially if you’ve been in lockdown for the last two years.”

Full line-up for 2021 MWTC

An intimate setting

The beauty of MWTC has been how it can put on a show featuring the world’s best tennis players in such an intimate setting. A seat in the stands at the practice courts places fans just a few metres away from their tennis heroes, and gives them the chance to see how players prepare for matches (access to practice areas is ticketed this year, with tickets starting from Dh50).

The likes of Nadal, Murray, Thiem and Rublev are frequent participants and Lickrish says they love coming back. Lickrish has had a running bit with Nadal ever since he met him for the first time in Abu Dhabi. The Flash supremo complimented Nadal on his jacket one time then asked him if he could have it. The Spaniard was stumped at the request and it became an annual joke between the pair.

“I’ve been pulling this trick on him every year, try to anyway,” said Lickrish. “The last time I did it with his Richard Mille watch. I was like, ‘that’s a great watch’ and he’s like, ‘yeah, you know it’s super light’. I’m like I’d like to have that one and he actually took it off and handed it to me (Lickrish did not take it). I would have taken the jacket if he had given it to me, to be honest.”

As Nadal gets set to make an 11th appearance at the MWTC, Lickrish most likely has his next trick lined up.

Updated: December 13th 2021, 8:06 AM