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Tue 1 May 2007 01:50 PM

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Game, set, match

This month, Leisure Manager takes a look at the popularity of racket sports and the development of the market sector within clubs and hotels.

Tennis

Year-round sunshine makes tennis a popular social and competitive sport in the Middle East. Driving this popularity is the Dubai Open Tennis Championship, part of the ATP and WTA tours, which attracts the world's top male and female players.

Director of corporate communications and Dubai Tennis Championships for Dubai Duty Free, Salah Tahlak, says the competition is witnessing year-on-year growth.

"The major market for the event is based locally, although some spectators also come from other countries," he says.

Due to the size of the tournament, teamwork is key to the smooth running of the Dubai Open and, therefore, to its continued success.

"We also did better this year in terms of revenue, as we had additional sponsors on board, such as Rolex and Al Nabooda Automobiles. We sold more merchandise at the Dubai Duty Free tennis shop and the other ticket outlets as well," he adds.

Due to the size of the tournament, Tahlak says, manpower and teamwork are the keys to the smooth running of the event and, therefore, to its continued success.

"We recruit additional staff in-house for the Dubai Open - Dubai Duty Free staff are well trained in customer service," he explains.

"A thorough briefing was given to all staff a week before the event. Like other events, we faced a few major and minor problems during the event, but the whole team talked about [the challenges that arose] and helped each other to solve the issues."

Since the tournament was inaugurated in 1993, Tahlak says the organisers have strived to keep improving the event, with technology updates and changes to operating procedures that ensure the competition goes without a hitch as its popularity with spectators, and renown within the industry, continues to grow.

"We had Hawk Eye Line Calling Challenges for the first time this year, viewed on giant LCD screens. This system allowed players to challenge controversial line calls, creating a more interactive and exciting atmosphere inside the Centre Court," Tahlak says.

"Next year, we are thinking of splitting tickets into two sessions - for afternoon and evening matches. This will resolve the complications in terms of re-issuing badges when a customer decides not to watch the evening match," he adds.

"In the future, we are also thinking of upgrading the South / VIP seats to accommodate more people. We will also start building the new Aviation Club hotel, which is scheduled to be built in 27 months, to accommodate visitors to the competition."

And it is not only the international-level tennis tournaments that are gaining status in the region. More than 300 spectators - including prominent local players, their families and friends, and government officials - attended the fifth Zayed Tennis Cup 2007 competition, which was held at Le Meridien Al Aqah from April 16-21.

The tournament, the first tennis ranking circuit for men's singles and doubles sanctioned by the United Arab Tennis Association, saw more than 30 of the region's leading tennis players compete in a six-day competition held under the patronage of HH Sheikh Rashid bin Hamad Al Sharqi, president of Fujairah Country Club and Tennis Stadium.

"It is gratifying to witness the unprecedented success that the Zayed Tennis Cup has achieved in recent years," says Patrick Antaki, general manager of Le Meridien Al Aqah, adding that the annual tournament has become a highlight of the hotel's calendar, attracting support from around the region.


Badminton


While tennis may be steadily gaining popularity, badminton seems only to appeal to a loyal few, who prefer to play on a social, rather than competitive, level.

"The badminton courts aren't particularly busy - the sport definitely doesn't attract as many members as tennis or squash," says activity co-ordinator at the Dubai Country Club, Maddy Stocks.

On an operational level, there’s not much to [the upkeep of the courts]. We just have to keep working on finding new and creative ways to get people to play.

"The badminton mix-ins do quite well, but it's usually the same few members every time," she adds. "It's mainly women that play, but when you see a couple of guys on the court it makes you realise what a fast-paced game it can be - the shuttlecock really flies."

The club is able to offer badminton despite the relatively low demand because the court requires so little upkeep, Stocks explains.

"It pretty much looks after itself," she says. "We're lucky to have the space to be able to offer it to our members - and those that do play really enjoy it - but on an operational level there's not much to it. I just have to keep working on finding new and creative ways to get people to play."

A lack of publicity for the sport is one possible reason for its position as perhaps the least-played racket sport, according to Andy Staines, general manager of sports equipment distributor Raymond Sport, and chairman of the Dubai Country Club.

"There aren't really any major tournaments or star players for people to get behind with badminton, so it doesn't get that much attention," he explains.

Another drawback, particularly in Dubai, is a shortage of facilities, Staines adds.

"Until fairly recently, there were very few sports halls where you could actually play badminton," he points out.

"Aside from the Country Club, there are a few clubs within the local schools, and maybe a few of the hotels also have a couple of courts, but it's not as common as tennis or squash."


Squash


After taking off in Dubai in 1975 with the formation of a men's league, squash enjoys an enthusiastic following in the UAE, and indeed throughout the region, according to Raymond Sport's Staines, who is also chairman of the UAE Squash Rackets Association.

Squash is not as fortunate as tennis in terms of marketing or television coverage, but it is still very popular in this region.

As well as facilities in almost every hotel in Dubai, there are many clubs and fitness centres that have squash courts available. The fact that the sport is played indoors means that it can be played all year round, unlike tennis, which sees a major decline in the summer months as the region's temperatures soar.

And again, it also comes down to good PR, says Staines.

"Squash is not as fortunate as tennis in terms of marketing or television coverage, but it is still very popular in this region, particularly in Kuwait and Qatar," he says.

"At the moment, Egyptian players are ranked number one and number five in the world - I believe they'll be dominating to sport for some time on an international level - and I think this is something we can take advantage of in this part of the world to help us drive [the popularity of] squash.

"It's not rugby, tennis or golf, but the demand is still there and the sponsorship is available [for tournaments] from certain companies," he adds.

Indeed, Raymond Sport is sponsoring the Dubai Country Club's popular three-day competition, the Dubai Threes, which takes place from May 24-26 this year.

"The competition is always really popular with the UAE's squash-playing community, so there is always a healthy number of spectators," Staines explains.

The Dubai Threes competition sees six local amateur teams from countries such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia take on professional teams. This year French and English teams are among those taking part, and an ex-professionals team is also participating.

"We have a lot to do in the build up to this event," says Dubai Country Club's Stocks. "I work together with the members' committee to sort out everything from F&B and publicity to flight arrangements and airport transfers. There's a lot that has to be done - right down to making sure we actually have enough squash balls! - but because the club has been hosting the competition for 23 years, they've got it down to an art form."

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