Federer, Djokovic, Murray, Berdych: these are the headliners of the ATP 500 held in Dubai this week. But two decades ago, the entire tour was between disinterest and scepticism when the UAE tournament first saw the light of day. All the tour? No. A curious little Frenchie and a big Czech player remember...
February 1993. The Australian Open ended with the victory of the world's No. 1 Jim Courier on the World's No. 2 Stefan Edberg. As usual, the ATP caravan followed different roads in the aftermath, one indoor, in Europe (Marseille, Milan, Rotterdam), the other outdoor on hard courts in the US (San Francisco, Memphis), the two met again in March around Indian Wells. But the 1993 calendar offered a third option to professional players. A more exotic novelty: a tour in the Persian Gulf, in Dubai then Doha. Karel Novacek, first winner of the UAE tournament, remembers: "We have to remember that it was completely exceptional. Today, the UAE and Qatar are everywhere in sport. But at the time, we didn't know that there was any sporting tradition there. This tournament came out of nowhere. Nobody knew what to expect when arriving there. »
Despite a total allocation of a million dollars - only Grand Slams and some of the future Masters 1000 offer more - The best didn't feel like pioneers: on the starting line, the No. 1 seed was the Russian Alexander Volkov, No. 17 worldwide, followed by Thomas Muster, No. 18, and Novacek, No. 23. The Czech himself only made the trip to the Emirates because of the circumstances: "I had missed the Australian Open because of an injury. So I had not yet made a long journey and, in order to have an unusual experience to start the year, I said to myself, 'OK, there is a new tournament in the UAE, let's see what it's like'. »
With a clear lack of top-level sport experience, the organizers still had that of hospitality and luxury: "They put on a great spread to greet us at the Aviation Club of Dubai. And then they had booked moments in the day to show us around the city. Really, they did what it took to make us speak well about the tournament to our colleagues on the tour! It was already spectacular and we felt all their ambition to become a state that matter internationally. I guess it has become even more disproportionate... I have not been back since 1996. I don't even know if I would recognize Dubai today! »
A sandstorm and the PSG chairman of the board
On the courts, the qualifications were an opportunity to discover two names called to return often in the greatest tables: Younes El Aynaoui and especially a promising young Russian Yevgeny Kafelnikov. There also was the best representative of neighbouring country, Qatar, a man called Nasser Al-Ghanim Khelaïfi defeated in the first round 6/0 6/0... And that the supporters of Paris Saint-Germain Football Club would meet two decades later.
Meanwhile, this first week of tennis in the Gulf took place without any major hitch. "There was a big sandstorm on the Monday or the Tuesday, but it didn't last long enough to disrupt the tournament,” remembers Novacek. “There were a few people in the stands. Not a big crowd, but still." Winner of Muster in particular, The Czech played the final. He faced Fabrice Santoro, 39th in the world and who had just defeated Volkov in the quarterfinals. If the French chose to come to Dubai, it was also "to see what it looked like": "Twenty years ago, no one was capable of putting Dubai on a map. This intrigued me. And to be honest, when I made my registration in November or December 1992, I suspected that most players would not have the same curiosity and that the density of the table would suffer from this!”
And the gamble paid off: in Dubai, Santoro reached the second final of his career. But it was Novacek, sure bet of the tour, already gone through the Top 10, who opened the prize list of the tournament, winning at the same time his 11th ATP title. He pocketed a nice check for an amount of $ 143,000 - in comparison, he also reached the final of the Rotterdam tournament, where the level was much higher, two weeks later, and... Only pocketed $ 48,000 - and the famous ship, all sails set, which would later become the iconic trophy of the tournament. It's still in Dubai, that three years later, Novacek won the last match of his career, shortly before retiring.
Federer's second home
Santoro would also be faithful to the tournament until the end of his career, of an exceptional longevity, in 2010. Ideally placed to comment on its evolution: "Past the doubts of the first few years, Dubai gradually became a very popular tournament for the players. Even when I won it in 2002, there wasn't half the Top 10 playing as it is the case now. The tournament has grown steadily: they built a new stadium, much larger than the former. In the image of the city, in fact: every time I came back in the last twenty years, I saw a different city from the one I had left the year before, ever greater, always higher, more spectacular. »
And with ever more prestigious ambassadors: from the second edition, in 1994, the organizers attracted their first Grand Slam winner, the defending champion at Roland Garros Sergi Bruguera. Many others followed: Lendl, Becker, Courier, Kafelnikov and Muster - both recently Grand Slam champions - Rafter, Moya, Kuerten, Safin... With this dramatic increase of players, the organizers decided to organize its feminine counterpart in 2001, with Hingis, Mauresmo, Davenport, Henin and Venus Williams.
Meanwhile, on the men side, a certain Roger Federer made it to the prize list in 2003, for his sixth career title. No one knew then that he had just opened a second home in Dubai, that he would eventually win six times in total... And where he will physically spend the winter, for his big preparation before the start of the clay-courts and grass seasons. One of the greatest champions in history choosing the UAE to base camp: such a scenario, even visionaries like Novacek and Santoro couldn't have predicted it.