8 min read
The UTR Pro Tennis Tour’s second season started by achieving new milestones in uncharted territory. Last month, Rackets Academy in Dubai held two men's PTT events with record prize money and free hospitality, marking the first time Universal Tennis has created professional tennis opportunities in the Middle East. And it’s just the beginning.
Rackets is set to host two women’s PTT $25K+H events, starting in late March, and will be the first women’s PTT events to offer free hospitality to players. In the first year of PTT in 2021, there were over 180 PTT events in 15 countries. The first six months of the 2022 calendar features over 90 events, highlighted by the expansion into the Middle East.
Tennis-wise, the Middle East is in a good place already: There are two Top 70 women's stars, live tennis is readily accessible on BeIN SPORTS, and established WTA and ATP events are held every year.
But, there is room for more opportunities for aspiring pros, particularly in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Universal Tennis and Rackets Academy in Dubai are working together to offer those opportunities in a city that needs and desires them.
The State of Tennis in the Middle East
The ITF regularly hosts many small events (men’s and women’s 15 and 25's) in Tunisia, Egypt, and Turkey, with a few events in Morocco. But in the Persian Gulf region, Doha hosted just six ITF M15s in 2021 and canceled the three planned for January 2022. Dubai hosted two ITF W25's and one W100 in 2021.
"If you look at Egypt and Tunisia, they are a hub for all the aspiring players who don't want to travel too far," said Egyptian reporter Reem Abulleil, who covers tennis and other Olympic sports. "But the UAE doesn't have that. Now and then, an ITF will pop up, and it disappears. There's only a big women's ITF 100K that’s played every November that's been around for about 15 years. If you're talking 15Ks and junior ITFs, there isn't a lot."
Tennis Development in the Works
High-level pro tennis has had a home in the Middle East since the early 1990s. Just last weekend, Expo 2020 Dubai Tennis Week featured a three-day exhibition with Caroline Wozniacki, Kim Clijsters, and John McEnroe. Every December, Abu Dhabi holds an exhibition, while Dubai and Doha host WTA 500/1000 and ATP 500 tournaments every February. These events attract the biggest names in the sport, and some even have residences in Dubai, including Roger Federer.
Tennis is one of the more popular sports in the UAE (along with soccer, cricket, squash, and jiu-jitsu) and recreational level play is common at clubs and hotels. The rise of Mayar Sherif and Ons Jabeur has boosted interest.
"The fact that we have two Arab women in the Top 70 now is insane, and one of them is a Top 10 player," Abulleil said. "That I can say is bigger than when the Morrocons were in the Top 100
Though the UAE has the finances to do so, the support for grassroots tennis hasn't been established yet: Qatar and Kuwait have national training centers, while the UAE does not—yet.
"In general, the strategy is not necessarily aimed towards grassroots," Abulleil said. "It's more aimed at what a big tennis tournament can bring to the country. They've done pretty well because they have big tennis, golf, and soccer events."
As managing partner of Rackets Academy, George Green is targeting player development as he looks to make Dubai a major tennis hub, and hosting PTT events is part of the bigger picture.
Rackets offers high-performance training for players in Dubai with 17 venues, including Atlantis, The Palm, the site of the PTT events. Green explained that the UAE’s interest is short-term financial gain while cultivating junior talent programs is long-term.
“There is a big gap in the market for an international standard tennis club here in Dubai,” Green said. “You have to invest in it. You have to give juniors three hours of court time with the best coaches in the best facilities. If you're going to be taken seriously on the global scale, you're judged on the players you produce, not your bank balance.”
The Universal Tennis Impact
Together, Rackets and Universal Tennis are creating lower-level pro tennis opportunities in Dubai. Rackets has hosted events on the Universal Tennis platform before with a 600-member virtual club, so producing PTT events was a logical next step.
"Actually having a tournament that's trying to mimic a professional environment and that prize money is always a good addition in the UAE because it's something that lacks there," Abulleil said. "Even when things pop up, they're not very consistent."
Going one step further, Rackets offered four wild cards to the winners of its annual championships in December.
“This is completely unique,” Green said. “This is the highest level you’re going to see outside of the ATP 500 that has ever happened in Dubai. No one's ever done this before for tennis, and we're giving the opportunity for local players to get in.”
A 2022 Kick-off with Two Strong Events
Mostly European players filled the draws for the two January men's UTR Pro Tennis Tour $30K+H events, passing through Dubai on their way from and to other tournaments. There was one player from Turkey, Marsel Ilhan, who has been ranked as high as No. 77 on the ATP Tour.
“Coming to Dubai from Egypt, Tunisia, or Turkey, having their stay covered, and playing in a tournament where they can earn more than $1K is already a big deal," Abulleil said.
The field included a few familiar names, including former ATP Top 60 player Igor Sijsling, and Jonathan Eysseric and Ivan Nedelko, who have been inside of the ATP 250.
"I saw these two tournaments in Dubai and thought it would be great to play these tournaments," said 19-year-old Moldovian Ilya Snitari. "But I wasn't sure if I would get in because I thought they were really high-level tournaments."
Snitari would win the first-ever PTT $30K+H Dubai and reach the semifinals of the second event (which ended in a rained-out final between Oscar Jose Gutierrez and Martins Podzus).
"The organization was really great," Snitari said. "Everything was on a high level. There was obviously a difference between the ITF tournaments and the ones in Dubai."
“It was such a high-level tennis, and everybody that came to watch it agreed,” Green said.
Like the men's events last month, the women's PTT events will take place in back-to-back weeks, starting on March 28.
As Rackets looks to grow more prominent and influential in the UAE, hosting events goes hand-in-hand with the goal of developing talent locally and enticing top players to come to compete. Universal Tennis is the perfect solution to set the tone for what is possible.
“We have a longer-term goal,” Green said. “We see the PTT events as putting us on the map on a global scale and being the shining light for high-performance tournaments within this region.”