40 LOVE History: Doha & Dubai
Published February 22, 2013 12:00
Twelve years ago something special was starting in a fast-developing part of the world. The Middle East had hosted a few WTA tournaments before but 2001 was a landmark year, with what is now referred to as the Middle Eastern swing kicking off in Doha, Qatar and Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
That year it was then-World No.1 Martina Hingis who dominated the swing, defeating Sandrine Testud for the Doha title and then another Frenchwoman, Nathalie Tauziat, for the Dubai title. The Swiss understandably remarked afterwards, "I am very happy with my two weeks here in the Middle East."
And year after year, those sentiments have been echoed time and time again by the WTA's biggest stars, and it has been those biggest stars who seem to shine in the region - 25 of the 27 champions at WTA events held in Doha or Dubai have been ranked in the Top 10 at the time, and the other two were barely outside of that, ranked No.11 at the time (Anastasia Myskina and Elena Dementieva).
Doha, the capital of Qatar and the country's cultural, commercial and financial center, has been a WTA tournament stop in two incarnations - a regular season event from 2001 to 2008 and from 2011 to present, and an additional three years as the season-ending WTA Championships from 2008 to 2010.
Victoria Azarenka chose Doha for her off-season preparations this year. "I practiced here for two weeks in December and it's always amazing hospitality, from this tournament back to the tournament that was the WTA Championships," she said. "I always love coming back here. The federation has such a great facility here. Everything is so close together. It's so convenient. And especially during the off-season, that's what you're looking for, to have one place where you have it all. It's also on the way to Australia. And I have a really great relationship with the people here, too. It was the first choice."
Dubai, one of the seven emirates that make up the United Arab Emirates and a global attraction for its innovative real estate projects, has been a regular season tournament from 2001 to present.
Although she wasn't able to compete at the tournament this time around, World No.1 Serena Williams has a particular affinity for Dubai. "It's a city everyone feels like they should come to," Williams commented. "You feel like you've made it if you've made it to Dubai. At least where I'm from in the Western part of the world, it's the city you want to travel to, like, 'Wow, you've been to Dubai, no way, what is it like? I heard they have all these buildings and malls.' So it's really a top place to go to."
The Middle Eastern swing has also been the site of breakthroughs that transcend sport - at Doha in 2008, Shahar Peer became the first Israeli woman ever to compete at a WTA tournament in the Arabian Peninsula, and at Dubai in 2010, a year after she couldn't play the event due to her visa being denied by the UAE, she broke down one more barrier and made a sensational charge to the semifinals.
In her groundbreaking first match in Dubai, Peer faced a 4-2 third set deficit to Yanina Wickmayer but fought back to win, 36 62 75, and her words after the match resonated. "It doesn't really matter how well I played in the match - to win today, for me, was so important," she said. "That's why I was screaming so much after I won. I'm so happy that I won. It was important for me. I'm really excited."
Venus Williams ended up winning the Dubai title and praised Peer and the tournament. "Shahar is just brave," she said. "She's got so much character. I can't imagine being in her shoes. I can't imagine playing so well with these circumstances. I just have to give her congratulations and props.
"It's great to show the spirit of inclusion and equality. I know in this part of the world they love having sporting events, and I know Dubai wants to be the sporting capital of the world. It brings a better future to this area of the world. They put on such a great event here so it's wonderful to see it grow."
Fast forward to 2013 and just about every top player plays one or both events in the Middle Eastern swing - Doha even had eight Top 10 players in its quarterfinal line-up last week. Serena Williams' results in Doha pushed her to No.1 again - a milestone, the oldest World No.1 in WTA history.
So, the eyes of the world are now on the WTA stops in Doha and Dubai - and, if comments from the WTA's No.1 teenager are anything to go by, those eyes could be on the two events for decades.
"I had never been to Doha before, so it was very different for me," Sloane Stephens said in Doha this year. "Where I live, everything is totally developed and they're not building anything new because there's just no space - there's nothing. Here it's so open and there's so much to build on.
"It's really cool to see something start from scratch, and then in like 20 years when I have kids and stuff, I'll be like, 'Oh my God, I was here when it first started.' It's really cool. I like it."
All year, wtatennis.com will be bringing you stories, interviews, photo galleries, videos and more as part of the WTA's 40th anniversary celebration, 40 LOVE. Check back every week for more...