'My heart is breaking,' Natalya sighed

Letter From Dubai
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The Independent Online

After defeating the Dutchman Sjeng Schalken in the second round of the £1m Dubai Duty Free Open here last week, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, the Russian former world No 1, was asked about the noisy atmosphere. "It was interesting," Kafelnikov said. "I had more support than Schalken. But this is a country of people from many nations."

Natalya Federova, a 30-year-old divorcee from Kharkov, Ukraine, was delighted to be able to have an opportunity to watch Kafelnikov and also Max Mirnyi, from Belarus, who was defeated by Britain's Tim Henman. "I usually only see tennis players on television," said Natalya, one of the ushers seconded to the tournament from the sales counters at Dubai Duty Free.

"I applied to work at the tournament and I have really enjoyed myself," Natalya added. She arrived in Dubai four years ago to visit her parents (her father is a technician in magnetics) and within two days took a job at a women's clothing shop. She has worked for Dubai Duty Free for eight months. Her low point of the tournament was Kafelnikov's capitulation in the quarter-finals against Jiri Novak, of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-1. "My heart is breaking," she sighed.

The majority of spectators were expatriates from Europe and the sub-continent, although figures in pristine white Arabic costumes were dotted around the stadium or gathered beneath the roof of the Royal Enclosure, which is designed in the shape of a Bedouin tent.

Sheikh Hasher Al Maktoum, president of Tennis Emirates, was a frequent visitor to the tournament. So was Hassa Mohammed, from Doha, dressed in a traditional abaya.

Hassa, a 40-year-old graduate of Qatar University who teaches history at a secondary school for girls, started to take an interest in tennis 10 years ago, after Doha became a stop on the ATP Tour. Last year, when an WTA Tour event was introduced in Doha, Hassa decided to follow the players to Dubai, embarking on a seven-hour car trip with her brother and staying for both the women's and men's tournaments here. This year she came alone, taking a 40-minute flight, and bought a season ticket for the tennis for 750 dirhams (about £150).

"People look at me differently when I come to the tennis, but I take it in my stride," Hassa said. "I love tennis. It is interesting. It is beautiful. I would go anywhere in the Gulf to watch tennis. I follow the game on television, especially Wimbledon, Roland Garros, the US Open and the Australian Open. I have visited London twice, but I have not been to Wimbledon. My dream is to be in Wimbledon."

Hassa admires the play of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, "and I find it interesting to follow the progress of Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin. I also like to watch Tim Henman." She returned to Doha last Friday at the end of her paid leave from school, and was on her way home when Henman lost to Thomas Johansson in the quarter-finals. One spectator, her hair decorated with half a dozen miniature Swedish flags, cheered heartily for her Swedish compatriot.

The Dubai tennis stadium was built in six months at a cost of £4.32m and opened in February 1996. The Centre Court, which seats 5,000, is rarely more than half-filled except for singles finals and certain evening sessions featuring marquee names. Tickets range from 25 dirhams (about £5) to 250 dirhams (about £50) for the opening day of either the men's or women's events, and from 200 dirhams (about £40) to 500 dirhams (about £100), with discounts on season tickets.

"There are more UAE nationals attending now than before, but they are still in the minority," said Colm McLoughlin, the managing director of Dubai Duty Free, who own the tournament. "The majority of the spectators are expats from various nations. We're not trying to attract any particular nationalities. We don't do the tennis specifically for tennis, but for promoting Dubai. At the same time we do encourage local junior tennis programmes and the training of local umpires and line judges. We now also have local ball kids involved with the tournament, and have given a wild card to Omar Bahrouzyan, a UAE player, for the past two tournaments."

During Saturday's semi-final between Johansson and Younes El Aynaoui, of Morocco, the ball boys not employed on court took a break in the top tiers of the stands. Picking sides like schoolboys prior to a kick-about, one group elected to support Johansson and the other cheered for El Aynaoui.

Johansson's young fans were so confident of victory after their favourite levelled the match in the second set that they abandoned their seats to go on a lap of honour round the outside of the stadium. Their shouts of "Thom-as!" faded as the boys rushed into the stadium on hearing that Johansson was in trouble in the final set. El Aynaoui duly won.