As the Mubadala World Tennis Championship celebrates a decade, we take a look at how this big sporting event is just as much about the community as the stars
When the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) – then named Capitala World Tennis Championship – was founded in 2008, the vision was clear from the get go: create a sporting event that will gather and inspire the community through the game of tennis.
“[The organisers] were very clear that they wanted to create a legacy with an event in Abu Dhabi,” explains Vickie Gunnarsson, tournament director for MWTC, who’s seen the event grow since day one.
“It’s basically to give back to the community and create a place for the people where they want to get fit, get into tennis, and obviously, showcase Abu Dhabi to the world by having the best players come here.”
Fast forward ten years and that objective still stands, and the sport of tennis is catching on in the community.
Carrying on with tradition, the tenth edition of MWTC, hosted from 28th to 30th December at Zayed Sports City, promises to serve up more exciting and world-class action courtesy of the sport’s biggest names.
Over the years, MWTC has earned a reputation as a key event for players to jumpstart their campaign for the coming year as the championship officially kicks off the new international tennis season.
Players will be returning from a break, hoping to start the new season on a high, and the Abu Dhabi stop could just set the scene for how these players will perform for the rest of the way.
“We mirror our conditions in Abu Dhabi to that of the Australian Open,” Vickie tells us. “We use the same tennis balls and replicate the same court conditions because we know the players are likewise preparing for more tournaments later.”
Just like in previous years, six top-ranking tennis players will face off on court for three days of thrilling competition. Leading the pack is 16-time Grand Slam singles title winner Rafael Nadal, affectionately known to fans as Rafa. Following a scintillating year that included victories in the French Open and Roland Garros and a year-end finish as the new world number one, the Spaniard will be hoping to start off his 2018 season on a high with a win in Abu Dhabi.
“We saw Rafa come here and kick off his winning season [last year] and that’s because of MWTC. These players come here hoping that they’ll have a good year. The tournament works for them [in establishing their conditioning and rhythm].”
Vickie continues, “Rafa is a testimony [to] that. He’s been here seven of the past nine years. It’s a tournament that he prioritises because it’s a great way for him to jumpstart his season.”
The four-time and defending champion will be facing stiff competition from fellow top dogs, including three-time Grand Slam winner Stan Wawrinka (world no. 9), who will face US Open semi-finalist and MWTC first-timer, Pablo Carreño Busta (10), on the opening day of the tournament.
Also confirmed to compete are Australian Dominic Thiem (5) and last year’s finalist, Canadian Milos Raonic (24), who’s on a mission to redeem himself.
Finally, making a comeback is 12-time Grand Slam singles title-holder and former world number one Novak Djokovic (12). All eyes will be on the Serbian as he tries to regain top form after being sidelined for six months due to an elbow injury.
Something for everyone
While the presence of international tennis players is undeniably the top draw for fans, MWTC is about creating a family-friendly atmosphere during the event itself, while also supporting initiatives in the sport throughout the year.
The recently concluded Mubadala Community Cup saw over 300 youngsters aged eight and above compete across the country. Billed as the region’s largest amateur tennis tournament and offering a platform for young players, the cup gave the rising stars the chance to compete to win an exclusive spot in a coaching clinic with one of the pros at MWTC.
One such player, who won this year’s 14 and under category, is Anurag Reddy, who shows great promise after winning the cup in previous years and completing the Mubadala Tennis in Schools programme, another initiative that looks to grow the sport among students in the community.
At MWTC itself, visitors have the chance to get up close and personal with the players in the Tennis Village through coaching clinics, autograph sessions and Q&As before watching the stars serve up some ace action on court. It’s all part of the aim to further inspire the next generation of tennis stars as well as avid fans.
“You can see it in the players’ faces when they interact with the kids during the autograph sessions,” Vickie points out. “It’s also the same when they check out the Community Cup and [the children] get the chance to play with the players in the clinic.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and these players realise that. The players, they’re very accessible to the fans. I think that’s a really unique opportunity.”
Milos Raonic certainly agrees. Speaking about the role the clinics play for the children, he adds: “I think it is one of the most important things: that exposure is critical because then they can see what tennis is about and they can really grow a true passion for it – whether that is a passion to become a top competitive player or even just play recreationally. I think those are all personal decisions, but decisions that after exposing a kid to, the kid can really make their choice.
“It’s very important because here in Abu Dhabi they really try to grow the community of tennis and it’s becoming more and more a part of the culture. It’s great to see the difference in how much it has grown in the past few years alone.”
It seems the effort is paying off too, as Vickie notes that through spectator surveys, tournament organisers have witnessed a growth in participation in the sport.
“More locals, in particular, watch tennis on TV. We’ve seen more people pick up a racquet, not as often as we would have hoped but a lot of them have tried it,” she laughs.
“We’ve run programmes and a lot of people have become exposed to tennis and we’ve given equipment to schools, so a lot of people now have a better understanding of the sport.
“I think we’ve been very consistent with our objectives since the beginning, and through our community events we’ve shown that we are not just a tennis event, that we really care about the community.”
Interview: Pablo Carreño Busta
This is your first time to compete in MWTC. What have you heard so far about the tournament from your peers and others who have played here in Abu Dhabi?
The first time that I heard about MWTC was in 2013 when David Ferrer played the final against Djokovic. David said to me that it was a really good experience with the player treatment, and it was very positive for his preparation for the season.
At 26, you’ve had your share of defeats. Does it affect your confidence?
Of course my goal is to be world number 1, but at the moment I need to go step by step and continue growing up with positive results and taking experience.
How do you move on from those kinds of losses and how does it motivate you to play better next time?
I think in this moment there are players in the tour like [Grigor] Dimitrov, Thiem and [David] Goffin that are all in the same generation as I am and they are already in the top of the rankings so I expect to have many good challenges in the future.
How do you prepare for tournaments like MWTC?
MWTC is a bit special because it is the first tournament of the season, so we come from the pre-season and we are full of energy and hopes of a good start to the season.
Who are your tennis heroes? Is there a particular player that has influenced you?
When I was young, my hero was Juan Carlos Ferrero; I always watched his matches. You know when you are young you always want to copy your hero so maybe there are things that are similar in our style of play.
NEED TO KNOW
What: Mubadala World Tennis Championship
When: 28th-30th December, times vary
Where: International Tennis Stadium, Zayed Sports City, Saif Ghubash Street
Price: From AED 50 for children, AED 100 for adults
Visit: mubadalawtc.com, ticketmaster.ae
WORDS Ferdinand Godinez