Why top players see Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship as a launchpad for successful new seasons

Why top players see Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship as a launchpad for successful new seasons
Rafa Nadal has won a record five titles at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. (Flash Entertainment)
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Updated 19 October 2021

Why top players see Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship as a launchpad for successful new seasons

Why top players see Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala World Tennis Championship as a launchpad for successful new seasons
  • John Lickrish, CEO of MWTC organizers Flash Entertainment, tells Arab News about the capital’s unique tournament and the challenges and satisfaction of juggling sports and music events

If your job is to put on some of Abu Dhabi’s biggest sports and music events, it helps if you happen to love what you do.

Luckily, sports and music have been part of John Lickrish’s life from a young age.

For the Canadian CEO of Flash Entertainment, organizers of some of the biggest events and concerts in the UAE capital, the return of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) on Dec. 16-18 is a sign that things are getting back to normal after a year and half like no other.

“We’ve been busy during the coronavirus pandemic. We’ve done a lot of stuff with the UFC and the Tourism Authority — logistics and operations around those events last year,” he said. “We had permission to do the MWTC event last year because it was outdoors and it was international, but unfortunately we couldn’t coordinate with the Australian Open, as they kept changing the dates. The players were available, then not available, but unfortunately we lose out to the Australian one because it’s a Masters event. It’s a high priority for the players.”

But the MWTC is back this year, and will be socially distanced (40 percent capacity) with PCR and vaccine requirements at a sterilized Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex.

“It’s a very safe environment — it’s outdoors and you really can’t get bad seats at the Zayed Sports City facility,” Lickrish said. “It’s one of the great venues left. If you ever attend any of the international events, you’re so far away from the players, whereas with this one you get up close and personal. You can watch some of the training sessions in the smaller areas as well. We’re really excited about getting it back and we think it’s a great event for families and people who might be a little hesitant of large crowds.”

Since the tournament’s inception in 2009, Rafael Nadal has won a record five titles, while Novak Djokovic has four wins and Andy Murray two.

After a year of disruptions and cancellations due to the pandemic, players and their teams are once again open to traveling and taking part in the MWTC, often the ideal lanchpad for the Australian Open, which in 2022 will take place from Jan. 17-20 in Melbourne.

“Last year they were bit hesitant,” said Lickrish. “Managers thought that if they are coming down here, there was much higher risk. So they were like, it’s going to cost more money, which you think would be the opposite.

“This year they’ve gone back to the normal way of thinking,” he said. “And we know they’ll be flying out of the UAE on private jets just for the players to get to Australia, so it makes it a lot more convenient for them.”

Lickrish said that with other high profile events — many organized by Flash Entertainment — taking pace in the UAE capital, “it’s not the worst time to be in Abu Dhabi.”

He added: “As you know, we’ve got the Formula 1 (Abu Dhabi Grand Prix) just before and there’s been lots of requests for the players to have additional accommodation so that they can attend that,” he said. “They love the Mubadala event because it’s a really good opportunity for them to evaluate themselves with the rest of the players — they get to play more than one round with the best in the world.

“It was Roger Federer who requested that if you get knocked out you get to play a consolation round, which of course we agreed to, but unfortunately he hasn’t been back since then. One of my favorite players, Nadal, has had a lot of luck here, as well as Djokovic. They’ve gone on to have typically good seasons depending on how they’ve performed here.

“So we’re taking credit for the positivity and we’re not taking blame for anything bad that happens,” Lickrish joked.

While the men’s lineup has yet to be announced, the women’s match on the opening day of the tournament will see US Open champion Emma Raducanu take on Olympic champion Belinda Bencic.

MWTC comes at time when Abu Dhabi’s sporting calendar is at its busiest. Lickrish is proud that over the years, Flash has consistently been asked to organize the capital’s biggest events.

“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve worked with the Tourism Authority on the UFC — over multiple projects. Flash used to be a 10 percent owner of the UFC until a few years ago, but they’ve continued to work with us,” he said. “We had the experience of the FIFA Club World Cup in three editions. The first one we did entirely by ourselves where we ran the whole program, and the last two came under the watchful eye of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council. They owned the event and we were there as the operators.”

MWTC remains one of the dearest events to Lickrish, one that he and his team worked hard to “create from scratch.” But they remain on the lookout for more events.

“We’re always looking to expand our expertise,” he said. “I’d like to get into cricket, I’d like to get into basketball — we have done work with the NBA on a 3-on-3 tournament, which is really fantastic. We can pretty much do anything. We’ve worked with Red Bull on motocross. We have the capabilities, and if we don’t have the expertise, we find the person or persons who have that intimate knowledge in a sport and can help us with the competition side of these events.”

As a teenager, Lickrish was a promising athlete in his homeland and his love of sport has never left him, despite having his own dreams cruelly dashed.

“I was an alpine skier — Downhill, Slalom, Giant Slalom, Super GS,” he said. “I was ranked at one point fourth in Canada for 18 years and under, but unfortunately just before the 1988 Olympics I got hit by a car,” Lickrish, now in his early 50s, said. “I fractured my neck and had 40 stitches in my face so that moved my retirement a little bit forward. But I’m here now, have a really exciting job and a great family, so I can’t really complain about anything.”

Before his move to Abu Dhabi, Lickrish was also a certified skiing coach and today remains an avid golfer, having taken up the game at the age of 12. But what is one of his favorite spectator sports?

“American football, even though I’m Canadian,” Lickrish said. “I’m a big Green Bay Packers fan, as well as the Las Vegas Raiders. The Raiders are my second team. It’s funny because my youngest brother basically kicked me off the Raiders fan club. He started buying me Green Bay gear for Christmas and birthdays so I had hats and sweatshirts and all kinds of paraphernalia, because he wanted to support the Raiders and we couldn’t both support the same team. So they were kind of my second team but over the years I’ve really grown to love them.”

With the NFL already staging overseas games in London, would American football be something Lickrish would like to bring to Abu Dhabi?

“I would never say never in Abu Dhabi because if someone wants to go for it, it’s going to get done,” he said. “Of course I would love to do one, that would be amazing, but I haven’t approached them at all. I would leave that to the Sports Council or the Tourism Authority because they’re the ones bringing in the huge international events.”

As part of Flash, Lickrish has also played a major role in introducing some of the world’s leading musical artists to the UAE capital. His love of music and involvement in the industry ran in parallel with his own sporting journey.

“Even in university I was doing events,” he said. “I was very into music — all types of different music. I know everyone says that, but I’d been to every kind of concert, including classical, opera, DJ, rock and hip-hop. I started putting on university cover bands and theme nights and then I really got into electronic music because two Canadians — Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva — were coming to London, Ontario. One of them lived there and the other in Windsor, just by Detroit. I kind of fell in love with their music and their label.”

Since 2007, Lickrish and Flash have brought the likes of Justin Timberlake, Coldplay, Kanye West, Kings of Leon, Aerosmith, Prince, Paul McCartney, Gun N’ Roses, The Rolling Stones and many more to Abu Dhabi — first to the lawns of Emirates Palace and then, from 2009, to Yas Island, many of those concerts being part of the Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend.

So sports or music? For Lickrish, there is no simple answer and no obvious preference.

“It’s hard to say. I love doing the sporting events for completely different reasons to music events,” he said. “I think the really big thing for me is to watch the crowds and see how much they enjoy where they are. You can tell. I always go for a walk and look at people’s faces because I can see how much joy this is bringing them and how emotionally connected they are.

“I just love seeing that on people’s faces — to just disconnect from their responsibilities for one or two hours and dial into whoever is performing, whether that’s an athlete, a team or a musician,” Lickrish said. “It adds to people’s lives and I take a lot of joy in that.”

Newcastle beat Burnley to seal first Premier League win of the season

Newcastle beat Burnley to seal first Premier League win of the season
Updated 14 sec ago

Newcastle beat Burnley to seal first Premier League win of the season

Newcastle beat Burnley to seal first Premier League win of the season

NEWCASTLE: Callum Wilson scored late in the first half and Newcastle went on to beat Burnley 1-0 for its first victory in this English Premier League on Saturday.
Newcastle ended a 14-game winless run and earned desperately needed points as it tries to climb out of the relegation zone.
Burnley had been unbeaten in five games but could muster only one shot on target at St. James’ Park.
Wilson scored in the 40th minute after Burnley goalkeeper Nike Pope couldn't control Joe Willock's cross. Pope came out to the penalty spot to snatch the ball out of the air but on his way down collided with Newcastle's Fabien Schar and dropped the ball. Wilson took one touch around Pope and and fired high into the net.
Newcastle, which has recently come under Saudi ownership, moved one spot off the bottom of the table, bumping Norwich into last place with Burnley in 18th — all with 10 points.
Burnley thought it equalized in the 84th but forward Jay Rodriguez's tap in was ruled out because he was offside. Matej Vydra skied a half-volley over the crossbar in first-half injury time for the visitors.
Newcastle dominated the second half with lively play from attackers Allan Saint-Maximin and Miguel Almiron. Jonjo Shelvey's curling shot to the far post was tipped over by Pope in the 79th.
The win was also the first for Newcastle's new manager, Eddie Howe, who was hired last month to replace the fired Steve Bruce.

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow
Updated 37 min 50 sec ago

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow

LIVE: Verstappen tops final Saudi Arabian Grand Prix practice, qualifying to follow

JEDDAH: The second day of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix got underway on Saturday, with the drivers completing one final practice session on the Jeddah Corniche circuit ahead of qualifying at 8 p.m. local time.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen topped the final practice, ahead of world championship title rival Lewis Hamilton in second, with fellow Red Bull driver Sergio Perez finishing third.

The next fastest drivers were Yuki Tsunoda for AlphaTauri in fourth and followed by teammate Pierre Gasly.

Mercedes driver Hamilton dominated the first day of practice, finishing ahead of Verstappen in the first session and extending his lead over the rest of the pack, including teammate Valtteri Bottas in the second session.

Stay tuned below for updates of Saturday's action... (All times GMT)

17:00 - The first qualifying session, involving all 20 drivers who will be trying to finish in the top 15 of the grid, is now ready to go...

15:05 - Red Bull’s Max Verstappen finally broke Lewis Hamilton's practice dominance by setting the pace in final practice. The Dutchman was 0.214 seconds quicker than his title rival, who appeared to be struggling with his tyres - something the Mercedes team will want to address ahead of qualifying later.

Fellow Red Bull driver Sergio Perez finished third, and it was a fantastic session for the Alpha Tauri team as both their drivers - Yuki Tsunoda and Pierre Gasly - closed out the rest of the top five.


14:40 - Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was full of praise for the Jeddah Corniche circuit this weekend, admitting it was both unforgiving and dangerous, but also that it was a drivers’ circuit and one with plenty of opportunity. 

“In for a penny, in for a pound. This championship has had everything. This track is a real drivers’ circuit. It’s unforgiving, it’s fast, it’s dangerous, it’s going to bite if you make a mistake. How many safety cars are there going to be? Are there going to be VSCs. It can go both ways. It’s a race that has jeopardy and opportunity.”

14:20 - Lewis Hamilton has a small run-off in Sector One of the track after a front wheel lock-up, but the scare doesn't last long as he spins back into the action. Meanwhile, Max Verstappen is running in sixth with with 1:29.8...work to do for the championship leader.

14:15 - In case you missed it earlier, the team behind the Grand Prix released footage of Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal getting behind the wheel of the famous Williams FW07 car from the late 1970s and early 1980s. Watch below...

14:00 - The third and final practice session of the weekend is now up and running. The drivers will have an hour to iron out any issues with their cars as well as gaining more experience of the brand new Jeddah Corniche circuit ahead of the qualifying session later this evening.


ICYMI: Hamilton seals practice double, LeClerc crashes out on day one of historic Saudi Arabian Grand Prix. Click here for more.

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch
Updated 04 December 2021

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch

Early days of 2021 FIFA Arab Cup highlight intrigue on and off the pitch
  • As 16 Arab nations battle it out on the pitch, FIFA’s resident and other officials are in Qatar for the 2022 World Cup dress rehearsal, with readiness of stadiums and new offside technology on the agenda

Just a few days into the 2021 Arab Cup in Qatar, there are already several intriguing talking points emerging, both on and off the pitch.

An emotional opening ceremony, the first round performances, young players to keep an eye on, and the new technology under the watchful eye of FIFA’s leadership.

The organizers attempted to showcase the cultures of the 16 participating Arab nations at an opening party that lasted for 30 minutes in front of a large crowd at Al-Bayt Stadium.

It was a worthy start for this 10th edition of the tournament, and for the first time since its launch in Lebanon in 1963, it is under the FIFA umbrella. And for the first time ever, it comes as a replacement for the FIFA Confederations Cup, that traditionally precedes the World Cup by a year.

That this Arab Cup is a dress rehearsal for the 2022 World Cup was given even more weight by the presence of FIFA President Gianni Infantino and other major sports leaders in the stands.

And the officials are not there for merely ceremonial reasons, but to also make sure all is going to plan, from checking the readiness of the stadiums to keeping a watchful eye on the new VAR technology for offside that is under testing with view to being implemented officially at the World Cup next year.

The matches are taking place at six of the eight stadiums that will be used at the World Cup.

The showpiece opening between Qatar and Bahrain was held in front of 60,000 spectators at Al-Bayt Stadium, and the tournament is being played across Al-Janoub Stadium, Ras Abu Aboud Stadium (974 Stadium), Al-Thumama Stadium, Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, and Education City Stadium, and Al-Ebdaa Stadium.

The new VAR addition, the so-called semi-automated offside technology based on artificial intelligence, tracks the players’ movements, giving signals on 29 points in their bodies at 50 times every second; this is picked up in the control room, then sent to the on-field official who will give his decision, as was explained by the chairman of the FIFA Referees Committee, Pierluigi Collina.

The technology has already been tested behind closed doors at the Etihad Stadium in Manchester and the Allianz Arena in Munich.

This particular improvement to the VAR system — which aims to have speedier decisions with higher accuracy — is to be welcomed, as matches continue to suffer from lengthy, confusing offside cases.

The 16 teams are made up of 10 Arab nations from the Asian continent and six from Africa, and it’s the latter that caught the eye in the first round with victories for Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco.

Meanwhile, Jordan’s 1-0 victory over a youthful Saudi Arabian team was particularly impressive, Iraq equalized in the 98th minute against Oman, hosts Qatar beat Bahrain, and the UAE overcame Syria.

With World Cup qualification still a priority for several teams, some have decided to compete with squads made up of home-based players only, such as Egypt, or even with a second string, such as Saudi Arabia.

Herve Renard’s focus is firmly on Qatar 2022, and the Saudi national team was chosen from players born after 1999. In the circumstances, they performed well against Jordan despite the eventual defeat.

With assistant Laurent Bonadei leading the team, Renard watched from the stands as the senior players took a well-earned rest and the younger ones — many of whom played in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games — staked a claim for the remainder of the World Cup qualifiers. 

This reminded me of what Renard did with the Moroccan national team in the African Cup of Nations in 2018. They went on to lift the trophy.

Of particular interest to Renard will be the Al-Ahli goalkeeper Mohammed Al-Rubaie, Al-Shabab leftback Moteb Al-Harbi, highly rated Al-Hilal forward Abdullah Al-Hamdan and the brilliant Al-Fateh striker Firas Al-Buraikan.

On the other hand, Carlos Queiroz’s Egypt team have been criticized for their lacklustre performance against Lebanon, though they played without Mohamed Salah or Mohamed Elneny.

With the start of the second round, things are starting to take shape.

Qatar’s late, late 2-1 win over the luckless Omanis leaves them top of Group A with six points while their opponents sit in third with just one. Meanwhile, Iraq and Bahrain — who drew 0-0 — are second and fourth respectively.

In Group B, the UAE’s 1-0 win over Mauritania took them to the top of the standings with maximum points from two matches, three points ahead of second-placed Syria, who recorded an impressive 2-0 win over Tunisia.

It’s too early to draw conclusions from the early stages of the 2021 Arab Cup, but the second round of matches in the group stages are slowly giving an indication of which teams will challenge for the title.

For the fans, as much as the watching FIFA officials, there is much at stake in the coming days.

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Updated 04 December 2021

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Aston Martin team principal, Saudi athletes talk F1 ahead of Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
  • The race taking place this upcoming Sunday is Saudi Arabia's inaugural Formula One Grand Prix with Jeddah hosting the race

JEDDAH: Fans all over the world eagerly await Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Formula One Grand Prix, taking place this Sunday, including some notable professional Saudi athletes.

“It’s a momentous event for the country,” said Husein Alireza, the Saudi professional rower. “Everyone’s flown in, there’s a real buzz in the air, you know? We haven’t had this buzz in a very long time.

“I think we’re used to hosting people from all over the world — Jeddah has been the social capital for a long time, it’s a tourist hotspot. We’ve got the Red Sea, and the people of Jeddah are very laid back and welcoming.” 

“I think for any tourist, a way to experience a new location for the first time — to do it through the world of sports is a great way,” said Dania Akeel, professional Saudi race driver. “You get action, you get the social aspect, you get entertainment and you get to witness excellence at the highest level.”

The Aston Martin Vantage F1 Edition launched in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia for the first time. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

At the launch of the Aston Martin Vantage F1 edition in Jeddah, Arab News had the opportunity to talk with some Saudi pro athletes, along with Otmar Szafnauer, Aston Martin F1 team principal, about some of their predictions before the long-awaited Jeddah race. 

“I think we will do a really good job in Jeddah, the track looks amazingly fast and like nothing else on the calendar, so it should be good fun,” Szafnauer said. “Lance (Stroll) progresses year-on-year. He’s in the steep part of the learning curve, and he had a great race in Doha.” 

Szafnauer, a Romanian-American engineer, was received at the launch of the Aston Martin car by Ali Alireza who gifted Szafnauer a special sword, which the team principal thanked him for and jokingly said: “This will come in handy for future negotiations with drivers.”

Ali Alireza, Managing Director of Haji Husein Alireza & Co., gifts a sword to Otmar Szafnauer, Aston Martin F1 team principal. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

“Sebastian (Vettel) has brought a lot of winning experience to the team and know-how of what it takes to win — not just races, but also world championships, and he’s lifted our game quite a bit, but because of the rule change, we really did take a step backwards.” 

Due to COVID-19, F1 race cars from 2020 were carried over to this season with very little technical adjustments. There were, however, aerodynamic rule changes set by the FIA that stripped performance away from Aston Martin’s low-rake car, hindering their performance this year.

“It was too late, and that’s not a driver thing, that’s more of a car development issue,” Szafnauer said. “Once those rule changes were upon us, we couldn’t really do anything.”

As a result, Aston Martin have had to use some of their resources for 2022 on this year’s car to try and remedy what’s left of the season, to no avail.

“But next year is a whole new year, all the rules (will) even the playing field for everybody,” he added.

Dania Akeel, professional Saudi race driver, talks with Arab News about Sunday's big race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

Akeel said many factors currently in play will determine the champion of this season, saying that no matter what changes have been done to the engine to make it perform better, the human element in the driver is always a key factor.

“You know, the truth is, I don’t favor any driver, but I favor incredible driving skills. Each driver delivers a certain finesse, technique, a certain decision-making process that you can’t compare to each other,” she said.

“One driver will blow you away in the rain, another driver will come from the back of the grid all the way to the front, another driver will show you their resilience in defending their position. Each driver behaves differently on corners, on overtakes, on straights. And of course, that's not to say, the team as well has such a massive influence.”

Dania Akeel made history when she became the first Arab female to win the T3 title at the FIA World Cup for Cross Country Bajas event this year. She completed a remarkable comeback from a serious injury suffered earlier this year.

Akeel told Arab News that despite sustaining three pelvic fractures while participating in the Bahrain Rally Season, she was still planning to compete in the 2022 Dakar Rally which will take place in Saudi Arabia next January.

Husein Alireza, professional Saudi rower, talks with Arab News about Sunday's Formula One race taking place in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (AN Photo/Huda Bashatah)

Alireza, who took part in the men’s rowing in 2020 Tokyo Olympics, competed with a damaged lung. Mid-competition, a new ad hoc strategy was devised by his team that had allowed him to manage injury-hit races, with the 28-year-old unable to perform at full capacity.

On F1, Alireza had his own take on who the crown of this season will go to.

“I always go for the underdog and you know, seven years of Hamilton — I love the guy, I supported him at the start, but I would love to see Verstappen win the race. He’s such an exciting, dynamic driver, I love the way he drives, extremely aggressive. And it would be nice to see him win it here in Jeddah, that would be cool. 

“We’ll see what happens but I think I’m on Team Verstappen on this one,” he concluded. 

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives
Updated 04 December 2021

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives

Sebastian Vettel invited Saudi women to karting event to learn about their lives
  • The German Formula 1 driver said wanted to hear their first-hand accounts of recent changes in the country what life is like for them in the Kingdom

JEDDAH: In an effort to learn more about life in Saudi Arabia and recent changes in the country, and as an activist for equality, Formula 1 driver Sebastian Vettel said that he organized a special karting event this week for women in Saudi Arabia.

In comments shared on social media, the German driver, who races for Aston Martin, said he hired a karting track in Jeddah on Thursday and invited some Saudi women to race so that he could hear their first-hand accounts of what life is like for them in the Kingdom.

Vettel said: “It’s true that some things are changing here. There are a lot of questions that have been asked and I have asked myself. So I was thinking of what I can do. I really tried to think of the positive side.

“And so I set up my own karting event today, under the hashtag Race for Women, and we had a group of seven or eight girls and women on the track.

“I was trying to pass on some of my experiences in life and, obviously, on the track; to do something together to grow their confidence. Some of them had a (driving) license, others they did not. Some of them were huge Formula 1 enthusiasts, others had nothing to do with Formula 1 or racing before today.

“It was a good mix of women from different backgrounds and a great event. Everybody was extremely happy,” he continued. “And I was, I have to say, very inspired by their stories and their backgrounds, their positivity about the change in the country.

“It was important to get to know some of these women. And I think it was a very, very memorable and inspiring day and a great way to kick-off the weekend by focusing on the positive.”

Vettel will compete in the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit on Sunday, Dec. 5.