What do you get when you combine 18 of the world’s best tennis players with six world-class DJs and performers all in one event?
The answer is the World Tennis League (WTL), a new addition to a packed Dubai winter calendar taking place between December 19 and 24 at Coca Cola Arena.
Inspired by the rousing success of the after-race concerts that have become a permanent feature of the Formula One Abu Dhabi Grand Prix every year, the WTL will allow fans to attend three tennis matches (six if you’re going on the 23rd) followed by an evening concert, all with just one ticket.
Take Friday, December 23 for example. You could purchase a ticket with a price starting from Dh199 and get to watch the likes of 21-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic, Wimbledon finalist Nick Kyrgios and world No 1 Iga Swiatek before closing out the night with Egyptian superstar Mohamed Ramadan.
Tiesto, Armin van Buuren, Ne-Yo, Deadmau5, and Wizkid are all scheduled to perform. The tennis line-up also includes WTA Finals champion Caroline Garcia, recent Paris Masters winner Holger Rune, world No 6 Felix Auger-Aliassime and world No 5 Aryna Sabalenka.
“For me, it's going be the last week of preseason training. So I think it's great that we have the opportunity to play against other players and actually see what we worked on and implement that during games,” three-time major champion Swiatek told The National.
“It fits perfectly to our plan. I wanted to go to Dubai anyway to practice outside, so I think it's perfect. And also, I'm really curious how it's going to look like playing in a different system. And if I'm going to like it; I'm sure I'm going to like it. But I've never played an exhibition like that. So I'm really looking forward to it.”
How many teams are there?
The 18-player field is split across four teams with the rosters decided by a regular draft system that took place among team owners on November 5. The resulting line-up looks like this.
The Kites: Iga Swiatek, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Holger Rune, Eugenie Bouchard, Sania Mirza
The Eagles: Caroline Garcia, Nick Kyrgios, Bianca Andreescu, Rohan Bopanna, Andreas Seppi
The Falcons: Novak Djokovic, Aryna Sabalenka, Paula Badosa, Grigor Dimitrov
The Hawks: Elena Rybakina, Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Anett Kontaveit
According to the organisers, Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Arena and Dubai’s Coca Cola Arena were both vying for the event but they eventually went for Dubai, with support from the Dubai Sports Council, and knowing many players flock to the emirate anyway for their pre-season training blocks.
“It definitely came to fruition pretty quickly and the interest from the players was a big part, that I was able to get a good list of men and women. I think that’s one thing we were looking at, is a combined event,” WTL CEO Scott Davidoff told The National.
“We’ve seen a lot of men’s events with ATP Cup, Laver Cup, things like that. Events like these are great, they’re a business, a product, but you’re also trying to grow tennis, you’re trying to help the players themselves by marketing the men and women together, and that’s what I want to do. Especially the team concept, as we’ve seen before, they really show the personalities of the players.
“And with the combined men and women, when you have all these top-10, top-15 players in the world to be on the same teams and interact together, they don’t get to do that too often on the tour itself.”
What is the format?
The four teams will all play each other in a round-robin format, with each showdown between two teams consisting of a men’s singles match, a women’s singles, and a mixed doubles.
Matches will follow a best-of-three format with no-ad scoring. If a match is tied at one-set-all, then the third set will be played out as a super-tiebreak, with the first to 10 points securing the victory.
“It’s definitely a fan-friendly, quick, engaging match. How we keep track, every game within a set the whole week counts. That way people are still in it until Friday, until the last match and everything is on the line for every match that is involved,” explained Davidoff.
Who are the organisers?
The company behind the WTL is called Dark Knight Events, run by chairman Rajesh Banga, who has a background in film production and music, among other fields.
It’s not lost on anyone that the concept is similar to the now-defunct IPTL, which was a league. Founded by retired Indian doubles player Mahesh Bhupathi, and taking place across several cities in Asia, the IPTL was held for three seasons, from 2014 to 2016, before it struggled financially, with several stakeholders, including some players and the broadcast production team, claiming they never got paid their fees.
Davidoff had a player relations role in the IPTL and said it was important to assure everyone involved in the WTL that it was a legitimate project with solid investment behind it.
“I think with any first-year event, there’s definitely some caution,” said Davidoff. “You’re working with the top athletes in the world and they want to make sure they’re doing something that is legitimate and concrete. That was an important part with me coming into this project, was that the funding was upfront, which was critical.
“Of course with the IPTL, logistically it was not an easy concept, it was special and an incredible concept, but to go all through Asia, five different countries in 18 days with different governments, different restrictions. It was a great idea but logistically it was maybe a little tougher than we’d hoped.
“Whereas the WTL, being in one city, Dubai, for one week is a lot more feasible on all rounds, for the staff, for the sponsors, for the players and for the city.”
Prize money will be on offer for the two teams that reach the final – the amount hasn’t been revealed yet – and Davidoff says a multi-year deal has been signed with the arena as they look to make the WTL “a longstanding event”.
A massive undertaking
Bringing 18 tennis players and six music artists to one venue over a six-day period requires a huge investment from the owners as well as a great deal of logistical and operational planning from everyone involved.
According to Mark Kar, the general manager of Coca Cola Arena, at least 1,400 people will be working on the event at any given stage during the WTL.
“Given the fact that it is a world-class tennis event as well as a world-class concert, the infrastructure back of house that 99.9 per cent of people won’t see is something unique or different for us,” said Kar.
“Especially on the 23rd, we’ve got all four teams, plus artists, plus Mohamed Ramadan, who doesn’t travel light, travels with an entourage of about 60 people, all sort of back house.
“So to subdivide the areas of the rooms and build full experience in the back is going to be a challenge and a really unique experience for the building, and ultimately what the building was designed for.”
Davidoff acknowledges a lot has been put into the WTL to make it successful and the goal is to make the event profitable in coming years.
“From our side it’s an incredible investment, it’s something they have wanted to do. They’re hoping to have a return down the road with sponsorship, TV and other revenues,” said Davidoff.
“Outside of the tours, even on the tours, this is definitely a huge investment but also because we want to do it right, we want to do what’s best for the players. We have a state-of-the-art arena, the Coca Cola Arena.
“It’s magical with the tennis in there and the entertainment aspect. And also with the players and their entourages and their off-site practices, and the hotels, we want to make sure it’s a first-class product. It is a big investment but something that will hopefully be returned upon soon and most importantly that is viable long-term.”
‘The greatest show on court’
With several DJs and music artists basing themselves out of Dubai during the World Cup period, it wasn’t too hard putting together a strong series of concerts to accompany the tennis throughout the week.
Despite December being one of the busiest seasons in the UAE when it comes to events, and despite the fact that a combined team tournament will take place on the tennis tour just a few days later in Australia (the United Cup), organisers are confident they’ll be able to attract a big audience to the WTL given the combination of a stellar player field and a thrilling concert schedule.
While transforming the tennis court into a concert venue within a 35-minute period each night will no doubt be a challenge, Kar says an experienced operations team is in place to make the transition as smooth as possible and practice runs will be done before the event begins.
“You’ve seen certain sports embrace music and the entertainment side, the celebration of an event, which is fantastic. Formula One is a testament to that,” said Kar.
“There’s been a sort of change in sporting mentality through the way we consume highlights, through social media, through mobile phones. Tennis is probably one sport that needs a bit of an X factor, in my personal opinion.
“And that X factor doesn’t necessarily mean a change of the format of the game, whether it’s best-of-five sets or best-of-three sets. I think it just needs a little bit of wow factor into it, especially in the men’s game, which is seeing a transition of old into the new guard and the women’s which is probably the best it has ever been in terms of quality of tennis because it’s not dominated by a few players. Literally anyone can win a Grand Slam, which is exciting.
“So to bring that all together and bring it into an indoor venue which is very much designed for music. You see the success of the ATP Finals and add a concert element to it, I think it’s going to be super exciting and bring hopefully a new audience to the game of tennis.”
The addition of Mohamed Ramadan to the mix was also strategic.
“We know that tennis fans will be there, we know dance music fans will come, so how do we bring a new element to it?” said Kar.
“One of the biggest stars in the world right now is Mohamed Ramadan, he is absolutely out there, he’s crazy as anything. [It's a] perfect combination to bring him into that world of tennis and Arab demographic and expatriate demographic, that will see all the world’s best tennis players play and then see Mohamed take on the stage. The tagline is ‘The greatest show on court’ and I think Mohamed Ramadan will bring that.”
Complete schedule of World Tennis League 20022
Monday, December 19 (doors open 5pm)
18:00 The Kites v The Eagles
Felix Auger-Aliassime v Nick Kyrgios
Iga Swiatek v Caroline Garcia
Holger Rune/Sania Mirza v Bianca Andreescu/Rohan Bopanna
Concert starts: 22:00
Tuesday, December 20 (doors open 5pm)
18:00 The Falcons v The Hawks
Novak Djokovic v Alexander Zverev
Aryna Sabalenka v Elena Rybakina
Grigor Dimitrov/Paula Badosa v Dominic Thiem/Anett Kontaveit
Concert starts: 22:00
Wednesday, December 21 (doors open 5pm)
18:00 The Falcons v The Eagles
Novak Djokovic v Nick Kyrgios
Paula Badosa v Caroline Garcia
Grigor Dimitrov/Aryna Sabalenka v Bianca Andreescu/Andreas Seppi
Concert starts: 22:00
Thursday, December 22 (doors open 5pm)
18:00 The Hawks v The Kites
Dominic Thiem Vs. Holger Rune
Anett Kontaveit v Iga Swiatek
Alexander Zverev/Elena Rybakina v Felix Auger-Aliassime/Eugenie Bouchard
Concert starts: 22:00
Friday, December 23 (doors open 1.30pm)
14:30 The Eagles v The Hawks
Nick Kyrgios v Alexander Zverev
Caroline Garcia v Elena Rybakina
Rohan Bopanna/Bianca Andreescu v Dominic Thiem/Anett Kontaveit
18:00 The Falcons v The Kites
Novak Djokovic v Felix Auger-Aliassime
Aryna Sabalenka v Iga Swiatek
Grigor Dimitrov/Paula Badosa v Holger Rune/Sania Mirza
Concert starts: 22:00
Artist: Mohamed Ramadan
Saturday, December 24 (doors open 5pm)
18:00: The final
Concert starts: 22:00
Artist: Armin van Buuren