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)
Short Url
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.”


Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)
Updated 06 December 2021

Lewis Hamilton keeps title dream alive with victory in thrilling, stop-start Saudi Arabian Grand Prix

Winner Mercedes' British driver Lewis Hamilton (R) reacts with his trophy flanked by second-placed Red Bull's Dutch driver Max Verstappen (L) on the Jeddah podium. (AFP)

JEDDAH: Lewis Hamilton won a thrilling, topsy-turvy Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday after an epic battle with title rival Max Verstappen to ensure his title challenge remained alive going into the final race in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

The victory for the British driver in an incident-heavy race means the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers are now level on points in the world championship standings ahead of the finale in the UAE.

Hamilton got off to a perfect start off the line, while Verstappen appeared to be struggling to get power down in the early stages. But the momentum shifted toward the Dutchman when Haas driver Mick Schumacher hit a barrier, which eventually red-flagged the session after an initial safety car.

Hamilton and his Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas were called into the pits under the safety car but Verstappen stayed out and took the lead of the race once the red flags waved, allowing him to pit and change tires still out in front.

On the restart, Hamilton retook the lead amid a close encounter with Verstappen, who the seven-time champion claimed forced him off the track.

Just a few laps later, there was another red flag after Sergio Perez, George Russell and Nikita Mazepin all collided at the rear of the field.

The battle between the two title hopefuls had heated up even more when Verstappen received a five-second penalty due to a controversial move on Hamilton, who accused the Dutchman of “brake-testing’” him.

--------

PLAY THE ARAB NEWS F1 GAME HERE

--------

Race officials decided that Verstappen’s move was illegal, which after some negotiation between FIA race director and the teams put Alpine’s Esteban Ocon into the lead for third start of the race, with Hamilton in second and Verstappen in third.

Verstappen then took the lead again with Hamilton following through, and tempers in the garages were fraying when they collided late in the race.

Bottas kept the pressure on a slowing Ocon and snatched the third and final podium spot on the final lap in what was his penultimate race for Mercedes.

Hamilton was full of praise for the efforts of his team after the race, while saying he “did not understand” why Verstappen had braked and that the incident was “confusing..”

“I’ve been racing a long time and that was incredibly tough, he said. “I tried to be as sensible and tough as I could be and with all my experience just keeping the car on the track and staying clean.

“It was difficult. We had all sorts of things thrown at us so I’m just really proud of everyone and great with the crowd.

“Red Bull have some raw pace, it was hard to overtake them, we’ve done an amazing job and Valtteri did a great job for the team and this is for all the guys and girls back in the factory.

“It has been an amazing event I felt very welcome here and people have been lovely here. The track is phenomenal, very difficult physically and mentally but you would not want it any other way.”

Verstappen was in a more philosophical mood, calling into question some of the decisions made by officials

“It was quite eventful, a lot of things happened, which I don’t fully agree with, but it is what it is,” he said.

“I tried to give it my all, I don’t think the tires were lasting, I was lacking a bit of rubber at the end, nevertheless, still second.

“I slowed down, I wanted to let him by, I was on the right but he didn’t want to overtake and we touched. I don’t really understand what happened there.

“It will be decided (at Abu Dhabi), hopefully we have a good weekend.”


Saudi crown prince attends F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit. (SPA)
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit. (SPA)
Updated 06 December 2021

Saudi crown prince attends F1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tours the Formula 1 Saudi Grand Prix at the Jeddah Corniche circuit. (SPA)

JEDDAH: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made an appearance at the Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix on Sunday.

The race, which was the first ever F1 to be held in the Kingdom, was won by Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in a dramatic spectacle at the Jeddah Corniche circuit.

Ahead of the start of the race, the crown prince toured the pitlane and was seen waving to chanting fans at the historical event on the Jeddah seafront.

The race has captivated sports fans in the Kingdom, as one of the world’s most iconic motor racing tournaments was held in a Saudi city for the first time.

The crown prince wished the players well, praising the level of competition on display, before announcing the start of the race.

The victory keeps Hamilton in the hunt for the F1 title as the teams travel to the UAE for the final race of the championship.

Prince Mohammed was accompanied by a number of dignitaries including Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad. He was also accompanied by Saudi Minister of Sport Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Faisal, President of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal, and President of the International Automobile Federation Jean Todt.

Minister of Interior Prince Abdul Aziz bin Saud bin Naif, Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan, Minister of Culture Prince Badr bin Abdullah bin Farhan, and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed also attended the race, along with a number of other senior officials and guests.


Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action

Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action
Updated 06 December 2021

Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action

Countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action
  • Locals and international visitors applaud Kingdom’s success in inaugural Formula One Grand Prix

JEDDAH: With just hours left until the big race, the Jeddah Formula One weekend has stolen the hearts of locals and visitors as the open-sea circuit promises and delivers a spectacle for fans.

F1 fans from all over the world made their way to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit by the Red Sea for the Kingdom’s inaugural Grand Prix and the penultimate race of the season, taking place on Sunday as the fifth night race on the calendar.

“Well, honestly, coming here I wasn’t expecting to see what I saw today. This is something we’ve been waiting for, for a long time,” said Almogherah Al-Ghalib, a local F1 fan who works in the marine sector. “The organization, the views and the lighting is awesome — and just to see all these people here in this historical event is something that words cannot explain.”

Organizers at the venue welcomed people to scenes that personified the buzz that has been building up since construction on the track commenced in April. With many events, activities and concerts taking place, fans were dazzled both on and off the track.

“This is my first time in Saudi Arabia, so I didn’t really know what to expect but it’s been super positive ever since I arrived,” said Sam Fane, an automotive YouTuber from the UK. “I’ve been very well looked after through amazing hospitality, and I tried some nice Arabian coffee, which I very much enjoyed.”

--------

PLAY THE ARAB NEWS F1 GAME HERE

--------

Months of planning went into the eagerly anticipated race. However, many foreign media outlets released reports before the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix claiming that the track would not be finished on time. But the Kingdom responded through action, delivering on its promise to give the fans a show.

“I think this place is absolutely stunning, I have to say. You have a beautiful sunset like the one that’s going on behind me and the background of the F1 track is pretty amazing. Everywhere I look, it’s beautiful. It’s a great place to have an F1 race and I’m sure a great place to visit even when the F1 is not going on,” Fane said.

“I think we’re all excited for what’s hopefully going to be an epic race,” he added.

With doors to the venue having been open since Friday, the sun has been bright and shining, the Red Sea glistening and the fans flocking to catch the action of the nail-biting championship between seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton and up-and-coming driver Max Verstappen, who will be pushing their cars to the limit during tonight’s potential title-decider.

“I'm British, so obviously I have to be a Lewis Hamilton fan. It’s been a very exciting season in F1 this year.” Fane told Arab News. “While I want to it to go down to the wire, I’m a Lewis fan all the way.”

At 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, it is lights out and away we go.

“Honestly, words cannot explain or express how I feel today. It’s a transitional period here in Saudi Arabia, and we’re glad to be here,” said Al-Ghalib.


Formula One is transforming Jeddah, says Saudi trailblazer Reema Juffali

The Kingdom’s first female racing driver, who is also a Race Ambassador for the grand prix, spoke to Arab News ahead of Sunday’s raceday. (Supplied)
The Kingdom’s first female racing driver, who is also a Race Ambassador for the grand prix, spoke to Arab News ahead of Sunday’s raceday. (Supplied)
Updated 06 December 2021

Formula One is transforming Jeddah, says Saudi trailblazer Reema Juffali

The Kingdom’s first female racing driver, who is also a Race Ambassador for the grand prix, spoke to Arab News ahead of Sunday’s raceday. (Supplied)
  • Saudi Arabian Grand Prix ambassador says event proves how passionate Saudi Arabia is about top-level motorsport

JEDDAH: Saudi trailblazer Reema Juffali is delighted with how hosting the Formula One Saudi Arabian Grand Prix in Jeddah has brought an “energy” to the city and confirms how passionate Saudis are about the sport.

The Kingdom’s first female racing driver, who is also a race ambassador for the grand prix, told Arab News ahead of Sunday’s race that the event is having a “massive” impact on the city.

“I mean everyone, the city, my friends and family, everyone is so excited,” she said. “You can feel the energy having an international event like this, with everything it brings, from the concerts and the events, that ripple effect Formula One has is massive,” she said.

“And I understand that now firsthand, especially the fact that I know what my city is and, now, how it’s changed with the Formula One here.

“I guess just the buildup to this weekend, today the race day, we’ve seen quite a few different things over the weekend and every day it has been very, very busy. Usually, you find some days a little less busy, but from the Friday, as soon as the gates opened, getting around you’re weaving through people.

“And I’ve been to other events and it’s generally not that busy on the Friday, so it just shows you how excited the Saudis are and how much they’re looking forward to it.”

Juffali said she feels honored and blessed to be chosen as a race ambassador and to be representing her country on an international level. She told Arab News how important telling her story will be in inspiring Saudi children to get involved in motorsport.

“I think that is what kind of brought this on, and my experience in racing single seaters has been my career and life for the past three years, so it felt like a fitting role for me and something that I very much look forward to taking on,” she said.

“A lot of it has been sharing my story, connecting with Saudis and Arabs alike, giving them a chance to dream of getting into Formula One, making that a dream for them.

“And nice to see, as well, another side to this sport because it’s not just racing, there’s a whole other world, there’s media, engineering, hospitality — it brings so much with it.

“So, I see that as my role, spreading that awareness and allowing people to understand what the sport entails,” she added.

At the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, world championship leader Max Verstappen can potentially clinch the title, but Juffali is hoping the battle between him and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton can be extended for one more week beyond Jeddah, with the season concluding in Abu Dhabi next week.

“It’s going to be interesting. I think we saw that Max was quite eager in qualifying, but you also saw that he has the speed, so it is there,” she said. “It depends on overtaking, but I think that Lewis could potentially be at a disadvantage starting at the front.

“We don’t know that for sure, but it seems like it’s not going to be as simple in terms of overtaking, so I think if he has a good start and it’s a clean race, and we don’t get safety cars (he has a chance).

 

 

“But the more the race is interrupted, the more Max will have a chance, I think. In the end, it’s about getting the championship done in the next race, at least for myself, I want to see it go to the end,” she added.

Away from the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia and the glamor of F1, Juffali reflected on her season driving in the UK in the British F3 championship the past year — the first in which she felt she could say she was “an actual racing driver” — and told Arab News that, while she felt she did not reach her full potential on the track, she took away many other victories and lessons from the season.

“My driving was a lot more consistent, I was in the pack, always there or thereabouts and close to a good position,” she said. “Often, something would happen, whether it was a mistake from my side or I got unlucky. So, overall, I don’t think my performance reflected my ability.

“But in terms of confidence, in terms of how I’ve grown as a driver... I felt that connection with the car, what it felt like to be able to translate to my engineer and communicate these things.

“So, there were definitely merits and it was a very enjoyable year, and I will take those to the next stage, which I will hopefully announce soon. Stay tuned, you’ll hear more about it.”


AS IT HAPPENED: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix raceday in Jeddah

AS IT HAPPENED: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix raceday in Jeddah
Updated 06 December 2021

AS IT HAPPENED: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix raceday in Jeddah

AS IT HAPPENED: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix raceday in Jeddah
  • Stay tuned for the F1 action throughout the evening

JEDDAH: The eyes of the sporting world turned to Jeddah on Sunday as the inagural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix revved into action under the lights along Jeddah's Corniche coast.

Seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton won the race from pole position after Saturday's qualifying session, while his world championship title rival Max Verstappen could only finish second, in what was a topsy-turvy contest.

The Dutchman had held an eight-point advantage over the British legend in the championship standings going into the race, but will now have to battle it out for glory in Abu Dhabi next weekend.

See how the action of the evening unfolded below. (All times AST)

22:45 - IT'S ALL OVER! Lewis Hamilton wins a dramatic, thrilling and at times crazy Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

22:20 - The two at the front touch - Verstappen and Hamilton are still running on the track but the Brit ran into the back of the Red Bull driver, and Verstappen had been told to give the position back to Hamilton before the collision.

21:55 - Just as we get going again, we end up with another yellow flag and a Virtual Safety Car after Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda hits the wall...

--------

PLAY THE ARAB NEWS F1 GAME HERE

--------

21:40 - After some to-ing and fro-ing between the FIA race director and the teams, they have accepted the order of Esteban Ocon, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen on the restart...

21:20 - And it's another red flag, as multiple cars are involved in a crash at the restart...

21:15 - And due to the damage to the tyre wall, the red flag came out, which meant Verstappen who hadn't pitted took the lead of the race and will restart at 21:15 local time at the front of the pack...

20:50 - And we have a yellow flag on the course, Mick Schumacher has hit a wall. And tells the team over radio he is okay...

20:35 - GO! It's a great start for Lewis Hamitlon as Verstappen just didn't look like he was got the pace off the line, but he's coming back into it...and fast!

20:25 - Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman got a tour of the pitlane ahead of the national anthem ceremony and the start of the race.

 

 

20:10 - With concerns overnight about the gearbox of Max Verstappen, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, told Sky Sports: "It has passed all the tests we would normally do so we have to believe in our measurements and our tools. We have to go for it, Max has been driving beautifully, just a shame to not convert that (into a pole) but there is a lot of racing to be done."

19:50 - A nice moment on the track, as the drivers and teams take a moment of silence to honor the late Frank Williams, former principal of his namesake team and who had a long association with Saudi motorsport.

19:30 - With the race just an hour awayF1 fans from all over the world made their way to the Jeddah Corniche Circuit by the Red Sea for the Kingdom’s inaugural Grand Prix. Read more from the fans below...

READ MORE

The countdown to big Saudi race has F1 fans awaiting serious action. Click here for more.

18:45 - It was a dramatic F2 race, the event which is run before the Formula 1, as Enzo Fittipaldi and Theo Pourchaire have a huge collision on the starting grid. Both drivers were transferred to a local hospital concsious, and the race was run with half points being awarded.

17:30 - Fans are streaming in, and we still have three hours left until lights out. Teams are busy in the pitlane making last minute changes and fine tuning the cars before the big race.

15:45 - In case you missed it, Arab News spoke to Saudi trailblazing female racing driver Reema Juffali ahead of the race, see what she makes of Jeddah hosting Formula One and who she thinks will win below...

READ MORE

Formula One is transforming Jeddah, says Saudi trailblazer Reema Juffali. Click here for more.

15:00 - Saudi Arabia's sport minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Turki Al-Faisal was impressed with what he saw on Friday, and is looking forward to the big race today...