Since 2009, Abu Dhabi has brought the world’s top ATP players each winter to Zayed Sports City to give the capital a taste of top-tier tennis.
Superstars such as Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have all made multiple appearances at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) – a three-day exhibition that had become a popular fixture on the UAE sports calendar. Its last three editions also featured a women’s match that brought the Williams sisters and Maria Sharapova to the emirate.
The coronavirus pandemic led to the cancellation of the MWTC this year. But in a surprise announcement this week, Abu Dhabi Sports Council confirmed a fully-fledged WTA tournament will take place in Abu Dhabi for the first time next month, with 64 of the world's best women's players set to descend on the International Tennis Centre for the opening week of the 2021 season.
World No 4 and reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin will headline the field, which also includes Ukrainian world No 5 Elina Svitolina, No 6 Karolina Pliskova, No 10 Aryna Sabalenka, No 12 Belinda Bencic, two-time Grand Slam champion and world No 15 Garbine Muguruza, and American sensation Coco Gauff. Tunisian star Ons Jabeur will also compete.
A cloud of uncertainty has surrounded both the men’s and women’s tennis tours and the calendars for the first seven weeks of the new season were announced just a few days ago.
The pandemic continues to wreak havoc with the schedule, and with travel restrictions still in place and events still being cancelled worldwide, the UAE has emerged as a safe haven for the sport and its players.
Head to any tennis court in Dubai right now and you can spot the likes of Federer, Bianca Andreescu, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov and many more practicing and getting ready for 2021.
The UAE has long been a popular pre-season destination for players and Dubai has hosted an ATP tournament since 1993, and a WTA one since 2001. But this year the country’s role in international tennis has become even more important with Abu Dhabi providing a secure environment for the start of the women’s tour and Dubai playing host to the Australian Open women’s qualifying rounds from January 10-13.
"I think the UAE is an amazing place that it kept itself so organised in terms of virus control and kept the country so safe and that's why you have these events happening in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This is only because of the country and how safe it is and how open it is about bringing people to come and play out here," Bharat Godkhindi, the tournament director of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open, told The National.
For the first time in its history the qualifying rounds of the Australian Open will take place outside Australia. Players heading Down Under for the opening Grand Slam of the season will board chartered flights provided by Tennis Australia from three locations – Dubai, Singapore and Los Angeles – which explains why so many players are already in the emirate.
We are living in difficult times but it’s been heartening to see how everyone is banding together in order to keep the sport viable and make this work.
Players will compete in one continent for qualifying spots in a main draw of a tournament taking place in a different continent. In Australia, players have committed to pair up in twos for their practice sessions during quarantine, and can only hit with the person they signed up for. The tournament in Abu Dhabi is being run by Godkhindi’s BrandPlus Inc in collaboration with the ADSC and the WTA, who is footing the bill to provide working opportunities for its players.
“We have no sponsors. The only sponsor is WTA right now. This is not being played for commercial reasons, it’s being played to give players jobs. The WTA have been very, very considerate and they’re thinking a lot about the players,” Godkhindi says.
“The ladies who rely on this for their income haven’t had jobs for a long time. This is a 500-level tournament with a 64 draw, because we wanted more players to play so everyone gets some money.
“Prize money is coming from the WTA. Abu Dhabi Sports Council have been a huge support; they’re supporting us in a big way, with the venue, with the visas, with allowing exceptions for players to come and play. Without them this couldn’t have happened, they’ve been amazing.”
There will be no spectators at either event but Sigi Meeuws, director of ZSC Academy, believes it will be a great experience for all involved.
“It is truly fantastic to be hosting this event as an inspiration for all junior tennis players in Abu Dhabi." Meeuws said. "It will be an especially great experience also for the ball kids who will support 64 of the best players in the world."
The advantage ZSC has is that there is plenty of open space surrounding the tennis complex, including a large rugby field that could be utilised by the players and their teams.
For now, the Abu Dhabi tournament is a one-off, coming to the rescue at a challenging time for the sport. The city has long voiced its intention to host a top-level official tournament but no commitments are being made at this time.
“The WTA calendar is pretty full on a normal year, and we’ve been lucky to have this,” Godkhindi explained. “Of course we want to - I do want to have an event in Abu Dhabi - but I’m not sure whether we can get it. It’s a long way away, we still have to survive 2021 with all the problems we have in the world.”