It is no coincidence that four of the six international tennis players who are taking part in this weekend's World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi hail from the capital's primary target markets. The six national flags flying high atop the capital's International Tennis Complex says it all: We, the Emirates, are welcoming our friends.
The Russian tri-colour, the stars and stripes of the United States and Britain's Union Jack represent three of the UAE's most important markets in terms of tourism. The other three flags – Spain, Switzerland and the UAE – represent the homes of the top two players in the world and the host country.
Last year, while planning the blueprints for this inaugural tournament, event organisers Flash, along with IMG and title-sponsors Capitala, discussed the importance of having a wide geographical representation. Much like its neighbour Dubai, Abu Dhabi aims to use sport to sell the emirate to the world and by securing the participation of players such as Russia's Nikolay Davydenko, Americans James Blake and Andy Roddick and Britain's Andy Murray, they are appealing to three countries that are key in terms of tourism. By securing the participation of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal they are bringing worldwide interest to an inaugural exhibition tournament – the event is being broadcast to a reported 466 million homes around the world.
"We wanted to have the top two players in the world, then it became a discussion to have an appropriate geographic spread to have players from markets that made sense," said Greg Sproule, managing Director of global sports giant IMG.
"We have a representative player field from markets that are important to Abu Dhabi, important to Capitala and important to Flash. With that in mind, we have the two best American players here, the United Kingdom is a very important market for Abu Dhabi overall, so Andy Murray is an obvious choice, and Russia is very important here to the economy, in distance, political and other relations so that's why Nikolay Davydenko has been invited."
The cost of inviting six of the world's top 10 players to play over the New Year in a non-ATP tournament less than three weeks before the Australian Open, the first Grand Slam of the new season, is being kept strictly under wraps. But with a prize purse of only $250,000 (Dh790,000) it would not be unrealistic to estimate each player to be pocketing, on average, around $1 million. But that is to be expected: Tennis is big business.
Last year, according to Forbes, Nadal and Federer between them earned $53m in the 12 months from August 2007. Most tellingly perhaps, however, is that only about 23 per cent of that income was generated from match winnings, with the rest coming from sponsorship deals and appearance fees.
James Blake, the world No10, earned $7.5m last year. The American is a brand ambassador for Nike and also has endorsements with American Express and Evian. But the 29-year-old, who dropped out of Harvard to pursue a career in tennis, said due to the current economic climate, players should expect to lose endorsements.
"The economic crisis is affecting everyone these days. In the sports world, companies are cutting back and although the majority of [sponsorship] contracts were signed before and are over a long term, if the wheels come off they are going to have to be prepared to take big cuts. And I think it's the same in all sports, we saw it even with Tiger Woods, you just can't afford to be paying millions and millions of dollars endorsing athletes if you are laying off workers at the same time.
"But I don't think it will affect the general game. People still, even in these times of economic crises, want leisure time and want to enjoy themselves. I don't think ticket sales for events like these will drop – people are still going to pay to come watch great tennis."
Sproule said the 15,000 tickets made available for the three-day showcase, which got under way yesterday, have "sold-out" and, with the six flags flying high, the stadium was full as Russia and Davydenko got off to a winning start beating Roddick and America.