Dubai: In 1998, Khalaf Al Habtoor established the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge as a $25,000 ITF event. From 1999 to 2015, the tournament was classified as a $75,000 competition and last year it was raised to the status of a $100,000 (Dh376,000) plus hospitality ITF event. The founder of the tournament had a vision when he set out. A self-made man, Al Habtoor today runs one of the most successful conglomerates in the Gulf region. He is well known for his many business achievements and his knowledge of international political affairs. But he also wanted to make a mark in the world of sports and established the first-ever tennis tournament for women in the region. In a chat with Gulf News, the chairman of the Al Habtoor Group relates his journey over the past two decades:
Gulf News: I am sure you had something in mind when you started the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge 20 years back. How much of it have you managed to realise in the two decades gone by?
Khalaf Al Habtoor: It was important for Dubai and for us that we plant a new seed. There were no tennis tournaments for women anywhere in the region, and we felt the need to start a tournament that would eventually lead on to bigger things. Right enough, this seed has today has grown into something big, not just for the region but for the entire world of women’s tennis. Today, we can pride ourselves of staging one of the most favoured tournaments, if not the most favoured, on the ITF Women’s Circuit.
Q. How has this evolution progressed over 20 years?
A. Since our humble beginnings we have managed to attract some of the best players in the world to our event. We’ve had some top players in the world come and play, and even win the title here. If not, in keeping with our policy where we want to create a platform for future stars, some players have come her and won and gone on to top the rankings. We can be proud of the fact that Jelena [Jankovic] is a past champion here and she went on to become the world No. 1. We’ve also had [Marion] Bartoli and [Victoria] Azarenka and even Novak [Djokovic] who came and stayed at our hotel [Habtoor Grand Beach Resort and Spa] for a month and then went on to win the Australian Open for the first time [in 2008]. This is what we have managed in this period of time. The success stories are plenty, and it is left up to these players to narrate those.
Q. Now that you’ve had so many players come and thrive here, what do you think makes this event special?
A. I think it has more to do with the place than just the event. Look at Dubai today. This is a place that has changed and adapted through the years. People, in this case, the players find that they can breathe easy here. They can train hard and at the same time have a life beyond work and play. Look at the players of today. They are forever hungry for success, and as such, they get very little time for other things like entertainment. But in Dubai, they are able to strike a balance between work and social life. And I feel this is what gives us a unique position in the successful lives of these players. I am sure the players will agree with me.
Q. So can you safely say that you’ve achieved your goals?
A. Yes definitely we have achieved more than that. Players come and play tennis here and they also live and love living a normal life. What more can one ask for?
Q. In another five years, where would you like to see this tournament? Do you think you should perhaps grow it further, increase the prize money perhaps?
A. I doubt we need any further growth as far the tournament goes. This was meant to be a tournament to help young players grow into future stars, and we have a role to play. We have done our bit and I would not change any of this. Maybe we need a bit more exposure and some more importance on the circuit. Many of the top players want to come here and that gives Dubai enough attention in the sporting world at a time when all other sporting activities are at a near standstill. I am very happy with what we have achieved and the direction we are headed. The players are happy. Everyone is happy and I wouldn’t want to change any of this. We have established an identity and we will stick to this identity for a few more years.