We find out why this year's tournament will be better than ever
Few tickets in Dubai sell out quite as fast as those for the finals and semi-finals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. As annual UAE sporting events go, it’s a biggie, and this year is no exception – in fact, from Monday February 20 to Saturday March 3, it’s going to be bigger than ever.
‘In terms of our player line-up, this is probably the best we’ve ever had,’ explains Sinead El Sibai, vice president of marketing for the event. And she should know – after emigrating from Dublin to Dubai 23 years ago, El Sibai has been involved with the tournament since it began. ‘We’ve got eight of the top 10 women and eight of the top 10 men, and among those top players you’ve got the finalists from the Australian Open,’ she continues, naming world number one Novak Djokovic, who returns to Dubai to defend his title. ‘He’s won the tournament for the past three years running and he’s just won the Aussie Open. On the women’s side, we’ve got the new number one, Victoria Azarenka, who is coming back to Dubai having won her first Grand Slam. The players are superb, so it’s very exciting.’
Though the bulk of the stadium remains unchanged from last year, with centre court still housing 5,000 seats, there has been some redevelopment to allow for larger numbers elsewhere. ‘We’ve upgraded and put an extra 1,000 seats in court one: this and centre court are ticketed,’ she explains, ‘The rest of the courts are free and open-access.’
Unless you’re an architect with a keen interest in stadium design, however, it’s likely your eyes will be firmly trained on the players: an impressive line-up has ensured that tickets to the finals and semi-finals have already sold out. ‘We’ve got three of the semi-finalists from Australia: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Andy Murray. We have Frenchman Jo-Wilfried Tonga, who is number six in the world – he’s a great player to watch – then there’s Argentinian player Juan Martin del Potro, who has just come back after injury.’
But it’s not just those in the top 10 who are worth following. ‘Further down in the top 20 we have Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, who is half Lebanese, so he always gets a huge following when he’s here,’ El Sabia says. ‘In the ladies’ draw there’s Caroline Wozniacki, who was number one until a few weeks ago. Victoria Azarenka, the new number one, will be playing again, as will Chinese player Na Li – she’s great to watch. Further down the rankings we’ve got Ana Ivanovic, a former number one and Grand Slam winner – she’s ranked 18, but she’s still a big marquee name.’
El Sibai is quick to point out that though the finals tickets are routinely the most sought after, tickets to earlier matches offer a more affordable way to spot your favourite players. ‘I really do encourage people to come to the early rounds – it’s only Dhs50 each day. You wouldn’t get that anywhere else in the world.’
As anyone who has been to the tournament before can attest, it’s not all about the on-court action: for the duration of the event, the surrounding area comes alive with even more activity than usual. The nearby Irish Village is abuzz during the mornings and afternoons, with families making the most of the activities on offer and the extremely hospitable temperatures of what is widely regarded as the best time of year to be outdoors in Dubai. ‘We have a lots of things going on outside the courts to celebrate our 20th year – we’ve upgraded the entertainment, we’ve got kids’ days, the special-needs clinics, and of course the ladies’ day, on the first Thursday of the first week, which we’ve been building up over the past two or three years,’ says El Sibai. ‘We’ve got plenty of promotions, including prizes for the best-dressed ladies.’
Fortunately for spectators with a competitive streak, however, the visitor contests aren’t restricted to the first week. ‘For the first time during the men’s league we’ve got a “fantastic fan day”, for which we’ll be encouraging people to get dressed up to support their favourite player, and we’ll give men’s finals tickets for the person seen to be the best fan of the day.’ Throughout the duration of the event, ticket holders to any match will be able to pick up a coupon to enter a prize draw – the first of its kind in the event’s 20-year history – for the chance to win a trip to London. The prize includes flights, accommodation, entrance to the pre-Wimbledon party hosted by Dubai Duty Free, plus tickets to the first day of the Wimbledon Grand Slam tournament in London. ‘It’s exciting, and a very nice three-day package for anyone who loves tennis,’ El Sibai reveals.
Indeed, for those who love tennis in Dubai, the next few weeks are set to get very exciting. ‘When we first started 20 years ago, our top player was ranked number eight in the world. The fact we’ve got eight of the top 10 this year is just incredible.’ The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is on February 20-March 3. Tickets for the men’s tournament are now sold out; tickets for the women’s tournament start at Dhs50. Matches start at 2pm and 7pm. Dubai Tennis Stadium, Garhoud, www.timeouttickets.com