Stefania Bojica hits a forehand return during a qualifying round match at the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai. — Supplied photo
Dubai Marina was not bristling with life in 1998 when Khaled Al Ali, former board member of the UAE Tennis Federation, attended the inaugural edition of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in the backyards of Habtoor Grand Report.
In these 25 years, this Dubai District has undergone a majestic transformation, attracting millions of tourists with its luxury yachts, the grandeur of its restaurants and the gleaming skyscrapers.
During the same period, the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge has quietly gone from strength to strength, inspiring talented youngsters to reach for the stars.
There is no loud noise from fans, only a handful of them cheering for the players from the stands.
You can hear the thud when the ball bounces off the strings as players move and slide on the court for a point.
These players are not just jostling for a set point or a match point, they are also fighting for a shot at reaching the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of every new season.
Every year since 1998, the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge has become a stepping stone for future stars.
This is where Jelena Jankovic, a former world number one, tasted one of her early successes by winning the singles title at the age of 18 in 2003.
The honours board also includes names like Marion Bartoli, the 2013 Wimbledon singles champion, Sania Mirza, Peng Shuai and Belinda Bencic — players who went on to carve a niche of their own.
But for Khaled Al Ali, the impact of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge could never be put into words.
“When this tournament began in 1998, there was no professional tournament for ladies in the Arab world because it was difficult to build a women’s tennis tournament in this part of the world,” Khaled told the Khaleej Times.
Now as the 26th edition of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge begins on Monday, Khaled paid glowing tribute to the man who built this tournament, Khalaf Al Habtoor.
“Mr Habtoor, founder and chairman of the Al Habtoor Group, is a tennis lover. He always wanted to give an opportunity for upcoming players to make a mark in the sport,” Khaled said.
Khalaf Al Habtoor
“Women’s tennis started in the region from the Habtoor Tennis Challenge. Then the Dubai Duty Free (women’s event) Tennis and the Qatar Open started. But it was Habtoor tennis that opened the door for women’s tennis in the Arab world.”
Khalaf Al Habtoor is still as passionate about the sport as he was when the tournament started all those years ago.
“Our tennis tournament is the first in the Middle East for ladies. This tournament has always given an opportunity to young ladies to play and improve their game,’ he said at the draw ceremony on Sunday.
“I hope to see the young ladies play well again this year, I will definitely be on the court to cheer for them.”
Come Monday, big names like Sabine Lisicki, Ekaterina Makarova, Timea Babos, Vera Zvonareva and Kristina Mladenovic will be rubbing shoulders with rising stars on the court.
“It’s our mission to support all the players from the region every year. We make sure that at least there is one wild card for an Arab player. This year we have Yasmin Ezzat from Egypt. We hope she will do well,” said Noura Badawi, Tournament Director.
With Tunisian Ons Jabeur, the first Arab player in history to reach a Grand Slam final, setting the benchmark for sportswomen in the region, the Al Habtoor Challenge will continue to provide female players from the Middle East with a solid platform.
“This encourages us to support the sport as much as we can. We have had huge names play our tournament and reach unbelievable levels of success,” said Badawi.
“So we are very proud and this encourages us to be more committed to doing whatever we can to support the players, especially in the region.”