A (not-so-quick) guide to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis championships

Tickets are now on sale for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis championships. Which is the perfect excuse for me to look back at my own experiences at the tournament last year.

DDFT has been on my wishlist ever since I arrived, but it was only in 2019 that the Tennis Gods I’d been worshipping for most of my life smiled on me.

1d052ee5-d225-4605-8fed-7d07ebb7e253

 

Gael Monfils at the quarterfinals of the DDFT in 2019 

And now I should warn you that I am about to indulge in a little nostalgia, so if you’d rather not read it, go straight to the end of the italicized effusion below:

*******

Attending the tournament last year was the culmination of a lifetime of tennis fandom. But how did it start? I believe I know the exact moment, though not the day: my coup de foudre was delivered in 1984, the day my mother brought home a coffee table book titled ‘The Wills Book of Excellence in Tennis’. Any purchase in those days was a luxury, but a glossy book full of pictures of tennis players? We were convinced that this was a special world that we were now privy to.

 Our small town had very few TV sets at that time, but it did boast a lovely golf course and eight well-maintained competition-quality grass courts, a legacy of the British Raj. My interest was cemented by John McEnroe’s precipitous decline shortly after: my mother was a fan, and something about the drama of those days when the love-struck former world number one raged on the court, looking shell-shocked, appealed to both my sister and me. That year, we watched Boris Becker win his first Wimbledon. Both my sister and I instinctively disliked the German, but my hero’s star was on the ascent too, unbeknownst to me. 

 Every year after this, my mother, sister and I would make a pilgrimage to one of our neighbours with a television set, to watch the Wimbledon men’s and women’s semis and finals. This was all our one TV station would show, with interruptions for the news or other popular programmes. Not much else of interest was on TV in any case. As time went by, we added the French Open to our roster, though the Australian (was it even televised?) and the US (too early in the morning) eluded us. Those we awaited news of on the radio or in the paper.

 My obsession with tennis peaked during the Edberg years, or perhaps I should say my Edberg years, as they truly were. From 1990 (when he won his second Wimbledon) to ‘96 (his last year on the tour), I watched every match I could (the arrival of ESPN and Star Sports helped) listened to every BBC sports bulletin I could, read every tennis article I laid my hands on, scoured secondhand sellers for old sports mags, covered my wall in posters, made scrapbooks and scribbled Edberg “content” in my diary every day. News was hard to come by in a way kids who follow celebs on social media wouldn’t get. But one stuck at it.

 I had been a fan of Edberg before, but 1990 was the year I became a teenager, and I was perhaps casting around for a role model. There was nothing romantic about my fancy, it was simple hero-worship. My obsession with tennis in general and Edberg in particular changed my life in other ways too. I read some amazing sports journalism, mostly in the Sportsworld or Time and that shaped my own desire to write in a style that more accessible and more provocative than anything I’d been reading till then. I started watching more sports, things that hadn’t been on TV in my childhood. League football. Ice hockey. Snooker. I caught news bulletins while waiting for the sports news to come on. The soundtrack to my last years in school include the Gorbachev coup and the war in Bosnia. I heard promos for music programmes of all sorts and added those to my daily listening and viewing too.

 I watched less and less after Edberg retired. I graduated college, found a job, fell in love, married, had kids. Life, as they said, happened. Besides, I hated Pete Sampras. Irrationally. (See Boris Becker, above). But once I emerged from under my rock in the late 2000s and began to enjoy the dominance of young Mr. Federer, a self-avowed fan, like me, of Stefan Edberg, my interest began to pick up again, though in a much more casual fashion. And that journey came full circle when my husband and I sat down to cheer Roger Federer in Feb 2019.

***********

About the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Now, on to business. Hope these observations (admittedly random) are helpful…

  • DDTF runs across two weeks. The first week is devoted to the women’s tournament and is called the Women’s Week. This is followed by the men’s tournament
  • IMG_7513

Roger Federer is one of the main draws at the tournament every year 

  • This year, Women’s Week is from Feb 17-22, and the men’s event, from Feb 24-29.
  • Unlike ATP and WTA events in other countries, the final is on a Saturday to align with the local weekend.
  • Tickets go on sale in mid Jan. This is generally announced on the tournament’s social media. (Psst…2020 tickets are on sale now)
  • Prices range from AED 55 for early rounds to AED 415 for the finals. These are the basic grandstand tickets.
  • The basic grandstand tickets are more than adequate, so you’ll be fine even if you can’t spring for  the more expensive VIP seats. The stadium is small, and the VIP seats are only about 3 rows deep anyway. Simply get there sufficiently early and make your way to the seats that are right behind the VIP row if you can. We were in fact, just five rows away from the court.
  • The entrances to the stadium are about halfway up the grandstand area. We sat closer to the baseline, so we could see the players up close as they served.
  • A ticket is for the entire day, so you get to see all matches on Centre Court once you purchase it. There are breaks between matches of course

88d42c6b-9bb4-4aa4-a8aa-495945a4b6f2

Stefanos Tsitsipas played the standout match of the day 

  • When we went in Feb 2019, we opted to go on quarterfinals day. This was based on a complex calculation: Cost of tickets divided by the probability of a late-career Fedex making it to the quarters vs the semis. As it so happened, oh ye of little faith (us), he won the tournament, but we didn’t want to take chances.
  • Our quarterfinals day ticket allowed us to see all 4 matches. This included Gael Monfils vs Ricardas Berankis; Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Hubert Hurkacs; Roger Federer vs Marton Fucsovics; Borna Coric vs Nikoloz Basilashvili, in that order. We did not stay for the last match, as it was well past 10 then and we were exhausted.
  • Quarterfinals day started at 3 PM. As doors were supposed to open an hour before the match starts, we got there at 1.30. Unfortunately, we were not allowed in till close to 3 PM. We couldn’t tell if this was a one-off or a regular occurrence, but it meant a long wait in the afternoon – and it was pretty hot so not pleasant. I would still recommend getting in early, because a crowd tends to form outside the gate, and the earlier you are, the more likely you are to get a headstart on picking the best seats.
  • You can buy snacks, beer or water in the stadium. The stalls and toilets are a few levels above the court.
  • You will only be permitted to get up from your seats during changeovers. If the game resumes before you’re back in your seat, you’ll have to wait till the next changeover. But you can watch while you wait, so it’s all good.
  • Talking of buying water, for some reason they give you the bottle with the cap off. This meant I couldn’t tuck it under my arm as usual and had to walk down with a snack in one hand and the water bottle in the other. Not an easy feat while wearing a tennis-esque short skater dress on a windy day.

IMG_7516

Even the rain delay was fun to experience!

  • This was one of the rare rainy weeks in the city. There were a couple of rain delays including one during the Fedex match, much to our dismay. But then again, what’s a tennis match without a rain delay?
  • The best match from the ones we watched was one featuring Stefanos Tsitsipas; his talent we could see, was phenomenal. Later, over the course of the year, his performance was a bit disappointing, but then he won the ATP Masters a couple of months ago. Federer’s match was actually less interesting, he did just enough to win against someone who played fairly error-free, defensive tennis. Tsitsipas’ game was much more entertaining, and he was an absolute delight to watch when he was on song.
  • At the risk of stating the obvious, televised matches can’t match up to the feeling of being courtside; the pace, power, spin are so much more obvious in person.

IMG_7507

All eyes – human and digital – on Federer 

  • The fan hysteria during Fedex’s match was unbelievable. Lots of screaming, yelling and fawning. We could tell he was very aware of it, but an expert at shutting it out. We didn’t fare as well, and couldn’t quite shut out the guy opposite going ‘Let’s go rawger’ every 3 minutes. The chap next to us who was comatose on his phone for most of the exciting Tsitsipas match suddenly sprang to life when Fedex appeared, selfieing, instagramming and snapchatting as though his life depended on it.
  • If you don’t quite feel like sitting through a day full of matches, the venue is part of a complex that includes Irish Village, once the most popular watering hole in Dubai. Even if you don’t buy tickets to any of the matches, you can hang around, maybe watch stuff on the outside courts, or possibly catch glimpses of the players.

209be702-983a-42a9-9c74-2a2b22d7ffd9

At the Village 

  • Oh and finally, the DDFT announced the other day that Novak Djokovic was going to participate this year.

My year in art, music, literature and other solo pursuits

2019 was an odd year. I spent a good deal of it indoors, reading (*watching Netflix) and the few times I ventured out, it was for these “serious” above-mentioned pursuits. Not ladies’ nights, restaurants or shopping. Had I more invitations to the first two, and not indulged in far too much online shopping to have much left over for the mall, the title of this post would be something much more typical of Dubai.

0bdbc322-6f69-40e4-8c2b-79aa5e3ed281

January: The Emirates LitFest blog

Sometime at the end of 2018, the folks at the Emirates LitFest put out a call on Twitter for bloggers and blog ideas. I dashed off a few proposals and waited. I was pretty disappointed when I didn’t hear from them since I genuinely believed I was “a good fit” as they say in the corporate world. However, in January, they got back to me and asked if I could write about the authors and books to be featured at the LitFest. I was so thrilled, I had mentally composed the insta post announcing the project well before I began to work on the blogs themselves. I dashed off some fresh proposals, and spent the next two months leading up to the LitFest reading as many of the books as I could before I wrote each post. I ended up finally getting the Kindle app on my phone and what a Godsend that has been. It’s a pity I was too lazy to do it earlier.

Here are the posts themselves:

Travel through books

Fantasy fiction at the Litfest

Inspirational memoirs at the Litfest

Crime novels at the Litfest

IMG_2193

April: London Mozart players at Dubai Opera

This was my second trip ever to Dubai Opera following an afternoon showing of Swan Lake in 2018, where the audience mainly comprised teeny aspiring ballerinas. The concert, however, was staged in a studio, a much more intimate space perfect for chamber music. Seating was first come first serve, so I managed to get myself and my poor eyesight a good spot in the third row.

The London Mozart Players are a large repertoire and several of its members were in town around this time. The performers that night were a first and second violinist, a viola player and a cellist. The event itself was a chatty little affair, rather like being in the drawing room with a bunch of music geeks. Before each piece, one of the performers would introduce the work, and give a little background. The first piece was Schubert’s unfinished 12th quartet, after which the performers were joined by a clarinetist, and they collectively launched into Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A Major, followed by the Brahms Clarinet Quintet in B Minor. All the pieces were new to me and to my untrained ears, the clarinetist seemed to be struggling a bit. There was also some clapping between movements (something that doesn’t happen as much at the Dubai Concert Committee) but the musicians were good sports and almost seemed to welcome it.

I’ve never quite warmed to Brahms, but there’s something seductive about watching people actually create music with their fingers, faces contorting, heads moving, bodies swaying. Also, the Brahms quintet was inspired by the Mozart one, so brownie points to Johannes there.

May: The Dutch Masters Exhibition at Louvre Abu Dhabi

 While I mostly fangirl over the impressionists, and adore Munch and Turner, in the classics I have always gravitated to the Dutch masters. One morning, my daughter and I took the intercity bus to Abu Dhabi, hastened through the regular exhibits (that I’d seen last year) and found ourselves in a hall dedicated to this special showing.

Other than Rembrandt, Hals and Vermeer, there were paintings by Jan Lievens, Isaac De Jouderville and many artists bearing either the first name or second name Cornelius.

 

IMG_8614

Young Painter in his Studio by Barent Fabritius 

There was a painting each by Carel Fabritius of The Goldfinch fame, and his brother Barent. I fell instantly in love with a pupil of Rembrandt’s who I had never heard of before, Gerrit/Gerard Dou. Small canvases but infused with such feeling. However, the painting that still speaks to me after all these months is Rembrandt’s Man with a Sword.

IMG_8604

Man with a Sword, by Rembrandt Van Rijn 

If it looks at all familiar, it is because the glint in the Man’s eye is very reminiscent of some characters I may have seen on the aforementioned ladies’ nights: fuckboys. Seventeenth or twenty-first century, some things never change.

A lot of the art was from the Leiden collection, which can be viewed online.

August: Short + Sweet, The Junction 

 Short + Sweet is a theatre festival dedicated to original 10-minute plays. Last year, I participated in a 24-hour playwriting contest here in the UAE called Stagewrite; winners would have their plays entered in the local Short + Sweet contest. Needless to say, I didn’t come close to winning, but it left me with renewed respect for people who manage to craft coherent stories with well thought-out plotlines and characters.

IMG_9329

A favourite avenue in that ultimate of avenues, Al Serkal

In early August, The Junction at Al Serkal devoted an evening to staging 10 winning plays from the past seven years and while I didn’t stay for the entire evening, I was struck anew by the difficulty of creating something that resonates with the audience, in such a short space of time. Some of the plays did it better than others: my favourite was one that featured a loving matriarch, who is also an ex mafia hitman. I also enjoyed an exchange in a dressing room that was all about body insecurities, and the one that features a sex game that goes horribly wrong. The cast of course was mostly amateur and the acting jarred in places, but the tickets were priced so low, this is really not a legitimate complaint at all.

Also in August: Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen

Later in the month, I found myself back at The Junction, filled with anticipation. I had been through a phase in my teens when I read Ibsen’s plays back to back. All I remembered of Ghosts was that it wasn’t one of my favourites and it soon became clear why – unlike my favourite A Doll’s House, Ibsen sacrificed entertainment for drilling home a message. This is something from the 19th century that hasn’t aged well at all. It didn’t help that a major plot point – the male lead dying of syphilis – was dealt with through oblique references and euphemisms. If you didn’t know what the subject of the play was, you’d be mystified and wonder what the histrionics were about. Still for a fairly intense and long play with very little to leaven it, it did manage to hold one more or less engaged from beginning to end.

IMG_9404

When you don’t take pictures during the performance and miss the curtain call too. 

I am immensely grateful that The Junction takes a stab at things like this. The acting is uneven but mostly good; the varied accents of the amateur cast may sometimes shift focus from the action, but this is ultimately reflective of the polyglot nature of Dubai as well as a testament to a passion that transcends nationality. The sets and costume were adequate and the audience, pretty involved. Having been to The Junction a few times, I know now that both the cast and audience is mostly made up of regulars. Here’s to many more such stagings in the future.

September: Istvan Vardai at Dubai Concert Committee

 Of all the things I’ve attended (I’d hesitate to call these events) the concerts held by the Dubai Concert Committee (DCC) top the list. First, there is the beautiful setting at the One and Only Royal Mirage, with its hidden paths and dim, flickering lamps (that manage to be mysterious and not sleazy). Then, there are several luxurious restaurants where you can enjoy an early dinner before the 8 PM start time. Happy and sated, you then make your way to the ballroom, waiting in a luxurious lobby sipping on wine or rosé under vast chandeliers. Everyone around you is dressed for the occasion; once the doors open, a glow has been well and truly cast over what is to follow. And that is usually some sublime music, because the performers the DCC brings in are usually top-notch (a New Yorker-worthy critique, that last sentence). In 2017, I watched the sublime pianist Gergely Boganyi and later that year, my first quartet, which introduced me to what is still one of my favourite pieces, Mendelsohn’s Requiem to Fanny.

IMG_1673

The luminous ballroom at One & Only 

On this evening, the artist featured was Istvan Vardai, a cellist, but he was not the only celebrity in the room. No, that honour definitely went to his cello, the Dupre Cello, a Stradivarius from the late 1600s that had famously been owned by the tragic and talented Jacqueline du Pre. Vardai played two Bach cello suites (1 and 5). He also played a piece by Gaspar Cassado, who he explained was a student of the famous cellist Pablo Casals. The piece was inspired by Spanish dances and Bach. The other piece was by Zoltan Kodaly which was also inspired by dance (Hungarian folk in this case) and Bach. One could see that the cellist had put a lot of thought into his selection, as the pieces were all linked in one way or another. The only thing that could have made the whole experience better was if Vardai had also chosen to play Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, a personal favourite so sublimely played in the past by Jackie du Pre.

IMG_1675

Still September! Much Ado About Nothing at Dubai Opera

Full disclosure: I have never watched a play by Shakespeare. I have seen screenings of plays and movie versions of plays but that’s not the same thing. Naturally, I was excited when I received the Dubai Opera mailer, and I kept googling the New Shakespeare Company to see what the production was like. However, as the show in Dubai was their first ever, there were no details available.

Fan of the bard or not, there’s no way I can understand any play merely by viewing it, so I did the sensible thing: I found a PDF of the play online and began reading it in preparation. I was attracted to its strong female characters, and at some point I realized there was quite a lot of innuendo, and a lot of smutty jokes, a healthy amount of it by the women. I also read some reviews and criticism, just so I’d know what to watch out for.

IMG_2186

When the performance started, I was bit disappointed to realise that the company had made an artistic choice to set it in 1950s Italy and not the 16th century. There was also a lot of singing and dancing, and the rom-com bits rather than the darker undercurrents in the play were emphasized. Italian songs were sung between scene changes: a cast member or two would strum and sing while the others removed or brought props as though it was part of the action. It was all a bit over the top, but then so is Shakespearean comedy. The cast leaned into it rather than apologize for it, which made it work. There was plenty of slapstick which I believe would’ve gladdened the Elizabethan heart. The actor who played Benedick was a standout for me, and his declaration of love was so sweet, so heartfelt, that one almost believed it.

On that light-ish note ended my cultural pursuits for the year. I was meant to head to the Sharjah Book Fair (for Vikram Seth’s session) and the Emirates LitFest launch press conference, both in November, but events conspired to prevent it. Better luck next year, I am sure!