Dubai: When the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships opened its door to the WTA Tour in 2001, no-one could possibly have imagined that over the next 20 years almost every top player in the world would enter to perform on one of the most magnificent Centre Courts in the world.
From that first exciting year, the tournament has always attracted the very best and it was fitting that the first champion would be the world number one, Martina Hingis. The inaugural event was named as the Best Tournament of the Year by the WTA, and it later went on to win the Best Premier 5 Event in 2015, an honour that was repeated in 2019.
Of the 13 winners in the 19 years up to now, an incredible eight have been Grand Slam singles champions too and four winners, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Elena Dementieva and Venus Williams, honoured their country as Olympic singles gold medal winners. Agnieszka Radwanska contested the Wimbledon final, Dementieva reached the final of both the French and US Opens, and Sara Errani achieved world number five and not only reached the final at Roland Garros but won all four Grand Slam titles in doubles.
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships also made history and became a trailblazer for women’s tennis when in 2005 it made the decision to offer equal prize money to both women and men, becoming only the third professional tennis event after the US Open and Australian Opens and the first outside of the Grand Slams to do so.
“We were one of the first tournaments to introduce equal prize money for the WTA players back in 2005 and we have remained committed to such equality,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman & CEO, Dubai Duty Free. “We have been delighted to do so, not only because we believe it is the right thing to do but it is in recognition of the growth and popularity of women’s tennis around the world. We eagerly look forward to seeing what the future years have in store.”
The second WTA champion was Amelie Mauresmo who defeated Sandrine Testud 6-4 7-6 in an all-French final, with Fabrice Santoro winning the ATP title to make it a French double. It would not be until 2019 that players from the same country would again claim both titles, as Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic overcame Petra Kvitova 6-3 1-6 6-2 to win alongside Roger Federer.
The next five years set a record that is unlikely to ever be broken, as in that period the title was claimed four times by Justine Henin. In 2003 she won a cliff-hanger against Monica Seles, coming through 4-6 7-6 7-5, and in 2004 she defeated Svetlana Kuznetsova 7-6 6-3. The next year Lindsay Davenport interrupted her run of victories with a 6-4 3-6 6-4 win over Jelena Jankovic, but she was victorious again in 2006 with a 7-5 6-2 win over Maria Sharapova and then in 2007 by beating Mauresmo 6-4 7-5.
In 2008 Kuznetsova was denied again as Elena Dementieva defeated her 4-6 6-3 6-2, and in 2009 the tournament became a Premier 5 event and saw Venus Williams win the first of her three Dubai titles after edging sister Serena in a third set tiebreak of a thrilling semi-final. First she defeated Virginie Razzano 6-4 6-2 and in 2010 she beat Victoria Azarenka 6-3 7-5. In 2011 it was Caroline Wozniacki’s turn to frustrate Kuznetsova, winning their final 6-1 6-3, and 2012 saw Agnieszka Radwanska add her name to the winner’s board with a 7-5 6-4 victory over Julia Goerges.
Petra Kvitova claimed the honours in 2013 with a 6-2 1-6 6-1 win over Sara Errani, before Venus Williams claimed her third Dubai title with a 6-3 6-0 victory over Alize Cornet. In 2015 Simona Halep defeated Karolina Pliskova 6-4 7-6, before the unfancied Errani proved that her appearance in the 2013 final was no accident as in 2016 she claimed the most one-sided final in the history of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships by overwhelming Barbora Strycova 6-0 6-2. The next two years saw Elina Svitolina take the title, denying Wozniacki a second crown with a 6-4 6-2 win and then beating Daria Kasatkina 6-4 6-0.
Many legendary names have found success in the doubles too, with Martina Navratilova winning in 2003 with Kuznetsova – who incredibly added to her three defeats in the singles finals by then losing the next four doubles finals with various partners. Conchita Martinez won in 2004 with Janette Husarova, and one of the greatest teams of the 2000s, Cara Black and Liezel Huber, won for three straight years between 2007 and 2009. Huber won again with different partners in 2011 and 2012. Garbine Muguruza reached the 2015 final with Carla Suarez Navarro, and other top names who have won the title or contested the final include Ekaterina Makarova with Elina Vesnina and Caroline Garcia with Kristina Mladenovic.
“Throughout every year of the past two decades we have been entertained by so many legends of the game and witnessed not only their victories but also so many upsets along the way,” said Tournament Director Salah Tahlak. “In such a competitive field no player has been able to take success for granted, and that has made each and every day a thrilling experience. We can look forward to many more.”
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, begins with the WTA event which runs from 17th to 22nd February and features reigning Grand Slam champions Ashleigh Barty, Simona Halep and Bianca Andreescu, and then continues between 24th and 29th February with the ATP tournament which stars reigning Australian Open and Wimbledon champion Novak Djokovic, eight-time Dubai champion Roger Federer, 2019 ATP Finals winner Stefanos Tsitsipas and 2018 Dubai champion Roberto Bautista Agut.