Mubadala World Tennis Championship Tournament Director Vickie Gunnarsson explains how IMG and Flash have established the event, and the sport, in Abu Dhabi.
Professional sporting events live and die by the quality of their field. It is no surprise then that the Mubadala World Tennis Championship is flourishing. This year, the current world No.1 and No. 2 players, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, both competed in Abu Dhabi.
The high-profile pair have been regular visitors over the years with either Nadal or Djokovic – often both – taking part in all but one of the 12 editions of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
Despite being an off-season invitational tournament, the Mubadala World Tennis Championship has continued to attract the world’s best and the responsibility for assembling an enticing field each year lies at the door of Vickie Gunnarsson, Director of IMG Tennis Events and Tournament Director of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. It is a challenge she relishes.
“The event has built a good reputation now and the players love to come here,” Gunnarsson tells Sport Industry Insider. “Each year we establish a target list of who we want to invite and, thankfully, players are very open towards playing in Abu Dhabi.
“It’s a combination of supportive partners and a good track record with the event. It helps having the beach, the weather and the people here – the fans are extremely supportive and we have seen that players like to get a call about coming to Abu Dhabi.
“It’s been amazing to see the event grow from nothing to where it is now. When I first moved here, Zayed Sports City was basically just an empty stadium – to see how vibrant the sporting community is now in Abu Dhabi is fantastic.”
With the biggest stars in tennis – Nadal, Djokovic and Roger Federer – now in the autumn of their careers, there is an understandable concern that tennis will not be able to maintain its mass appeal after they hang up their rackets. But Gunnarsson is convinced that the talent pool is deep enough.
“I’m honestly not worried at all. If you had asked me six years ago, maybe I would’ve responded differently, but I feel there are a lot of other guys now ready to step up to that level and they are starting to get more attention.
“There just needs to be a bit of patience but I hope to see Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Murray stay in it for a little longer; we’re in this fascinating period of overlap now when we are seeing the guys who are the future of tennis play alongside these greats of the past 10-15 years.”
A week before the Mubadala World Tennis Championship, Saudi Arabia hosted its first elite tournament, the Diriyah Tennis Cup. Although it did not secure the participation of any of the ‘big four’, there is optimism in the Kingdom that tennis could resonate with the local population.
“The vision was to create a legacy around sport in Abu Dhabi. Mubadala have played a vital role in making that happen – they are extremely passionate about tennis.”
“I cannot speak for Saudi Arabia but we have certainly shown here in Abu Dhabi how tennis can be used to engage the community,” Gunnarsson says. “I’m sure Saudi will do great as well. You can use tennis as a platform for encouraging participation and also a platform to connect the business community.
“Now we hear the international tennis community talking about ‘the Mubadala’ and about Abu Dhabi – it’s really been accepted. We’ve established ourselves on the global tennis calendar and that’s all you can ask for when you launch a new tournament.”
Since 2011, Abu Dhabi-based investment company Mubadala has been the World Tennis Championship’s title sponsor and Gunnarsson believes the partnership has been fruitful for both parties, as well as the UAE capital.
“Without Mubadala, we wouldn’t be here,” the Tournament Director says. “They are supporting the event financially and they are supporting the event with community activations and tennis clinics. A lot of Emiratis have started playing tennis and Mubadala has done an excellent job of engaging the local population.
“The vision was to create a legacy around sport in Abu Dhabi, to tackle obesity and diabetes and give back to the community. Mubadala have played a vital role in making that happen – they are extremely passionate about tennis.”
That enthusiasm for tennis saw Mubadala expand its portfolio internationally this year, becoming title sponsor of one of the WTA’s legacy events, the Silicon Valley Classic. It was a headline-grabbing first foray into women’s tennis.
“We have created such a good relationship with Mubadala and the timing was just excellent,” Gunnarsson details. “They were looking to set up an office in San Francisco and expand more into the tech community there. I believe coming on board to sponsor the Mubadala Silicon Valley classic has been a good platform for them to show they are in town and help their brand be heard in the Bay Area.”
Back in Abu Dhabi, the Mubadala World Tennis Championship remains the UAE capital’s flagship tennis event. Speculation around Abu Dhabi’s aspirations to host an ATP or WTA ranking event swirl around each year but so far the Capital has not joined the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship as a tour event.
“The current format works really well. We manage to get an excellent field because we’re not up against another tournament in the same week, which inevitably happens if you go into the main calendar. Right now it is just us on at this time and that is the way we like it because it also means we have a lot of broadcast interest and are well covered globally.
“The set-up as a short tournament also means the players have more time for things like hospitality visits and coaching sessions with kids in the community. This level of access to the players is really significant.
“We often explore different concepts and will continue to do so but the current format has worked extremely well for what Abu Dhabi and Mubadala wanted and so for now, we will continue that way.”