Under the Patronage of H.h. Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai

February 18- March 2, 2024
Dubai Duty Free tennis stadium
February 18- March 2, 2024
Dubai Duty Free tennis stadium
March 1, 2024

Two decades of dedication: Officials at Dubai tournament take trip down memory lane

Sheetal Iyer, Asia's only female gold badge referee.

Sheetal Iyer, Asia’s only female gold badge referee, started career as line umpire at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in 2000; returned this year as WTA Referee

ATP Supervisor Ahmed Abdel-Azim has been associated with the emirate’s Championships for 25 years, noting the tournament’s rapid evolution

Dubai, UAE—March 1, 2024: The ongoing Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is the premier tennis event in the Middle East, welcoming the planet’s best players with world-class infrastructure and an event watched around the globe. Yet it has not always been like this.

Back in 1993, the inaugural men’s ATP event was held within a temporary structure at the Aviation Club, watched on by some 3,000 spectators. By the time the inaugural women’s WTA event was held eight years later, the Dubai Tennis Stadium was in place. It proved a monumental occasion: World No1 Martina Hingis playing and winning in Dubai.

It was a monumental occasion also for Sheetal Iyer, who was a line umpire at that first WTA tournament. Little did she know, she would return every year for the next 24. At last week’s WTA 1000 tournament, Iyer was back in town once more, this time as WTA referee.

“It’s very emotional,” she said. “It’s come full circle. I started here, and as the Dubai Open has grown, so have I. I’ve moved up and become a referee. It’s been an amazing journey. I’m just so happy with how things have gone.”

Ahmed Abdel Azim at the draw ceremony for the Dubai tournament
ATP Supervisor Ahmed Abdel Azim has been associated with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships for 25 years.

Iyer, Asia’s only female gold badge referee, insists the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship has always been a high-profile tournament. “For me, it always felt more like a Grand Slam—and it still does. It was something special; If you’re selected for the Dubai Open, it means you are doing something right. It has its history; it has all the big things.”

The 54-year-old Indian said the referees always looked up to being there at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. “When I first came here as a line umpire, I used to look at the referees and supervisors and think: ‘I wish I could do that’,” Iyer said. “Never at any time did I think I would one day be doing it, but here we are.”

Iyer, who has officiated for four editions of the quadrennial Asian Games, said the annual Championships has grown significantly over the years — it recently attained the WTA 1000 status. “Dubai Open at that time also was very popular, and it has grown, and it’s getting better and better every year. And this year, as 1000, is just amazing.”

Iyer’s brother Nitin Kannamwar also officiates and is serving as Chief of Umpires at this week’s ongoing ATP 500 event. The siblings have worked together at the same events and always have a lot of fun, she added. “We did the Asian Games together where he was the boss and I was working as an assistant referee to him. That was great. Then this year I did a WTA event in Canberra where I was the supervisor, and he was the referee, so it’s interesting and unusual. He’s my brother and I look up to him, so it’s nice.”

Iyer is not the only sports official involved this month who has memories of the tournament’s early days. ATP Supervisor Ahmed Abdel-Azim has been associated with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships for 25 years now; missing only one edition since his first involvement.

“The first time I was here, it was not even for an ATP event bur rather the Aviation Cup. This was, I believe, in 1996 or 1997 and I remember the site was… different,” he recalled. “I did my first ATP Tour event in 1999, so, through the 26 editions, I missed only one when I had to go to South America. But it’s always a great pleasure to come back here to Dubai, and every tournament there is something new, something interesting, something exciting for players and spectators.”

Abdel-Azim, who also started out in Dubai as a line umpire, outlined some of the significant changes the Dubai tournament has undergone during its evolution. “The construction of the outside courts, first of all,” he said. “They have changed, which extended the site and really improved that element of the event. Building the hotel here too – that was not there in the beginning. Now we have the players’ lawn area too. It’s all different to be honest, it’s almost unrecognisable from those early years. It’s changed so much since I was here the first time, and it keeps expanding.”

Abdel-Azim, who is based in Cairo, started his officiating career in 1994, but has since held many roles: chair empire, review official, and now ATP Supervisor. “The Dubai Duty Free has a great team, and are always very excited to add new things, which amazes the players, the spectators, and everybody involved in the event – including us officials. That’s part of the attraction of keep coming back.”

The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. Tickets for the men’s ATP event remain available to purchase at www.dubaidutyfreetennischampionships.com.

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