IN preparation for this year's first Grand Slam tennis tournament, a number of players competing in the Australian Open warmed up - literally and figuratively - in the Persian Gulf.
They played the Qatar Open in Doha, Qatar, one of two tournaments the ATP Tour (formerly the Association of Tennis Professionals) has launched in the Middle East since last year. The other, held the week after the Australian Open (now under way), is the Dubai Tennis Open, in the Arab emirate of that name.
In a phone interview from ATP headquarters in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., Chief Executive Officer Mark Miles says that these tournaments ``add a richness to the flavor of the tour.'' As a visitor to last year's first Qatar Open, he found the local culture manifested in a number of ways, from the camel rides given the players to the periodic mid-match departures by his hosts.
``If it happened to be the time for prayer, a signal sounded throughout the city, and my hosts simply stood and left to pray,'' he says. These regular exoduses of white-robed spectators, he claims, were ``a lot less disruptive than the planes flying overhead at Flushing Meadow,'' during the United States Open in New York City.
The two Middle East events, Miles says, serve as stopping-off points for European players (and even some Americans) in transit to or from Australia. They also help to acclimate players to Melbourne's weather, which can be sizzling in January. ``It's desert, but it's not as hot as the Australian summer,'' Miles says of Qatar. And at night, rapid cooling can cause moisture problems on the courts. In fact, some matches this year had to be delayed.
The Gulf tournaments are part of a grand plan to place professional tournaments in the world's existing and emerging tennis markets, Miles says. He doubts that any sport can top the ATP Tour's 87 tournaments in 39 countries for diversity.
Tennis has long been a far-flung sport, but Miles says that the tour calendar had become a ``function of history.'' Through strategic analysis, the ATP has begun to modernize, fill in the gaps, weed out when necessary, and generally prepare for life in the 21st century.
Where once there were five South American tournaments, all in Brazil, now there are stops in Chile, Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. In Asia, events have been added in Beijing, Jakarta, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Miles says the ATP takes care in selecting new tournaments. ``We want to create tradition in our events,'' he says. ``We don't want a royal family putting up the money for an event for a year or two and then losing interest.''
Money seems to be no obstacle. In Doha, an $18 million tennis/squash complex, complete with 4,500-seat stadium, was built in six months and $475,000 in prize money placed on the table. There isn't an abundance of local tennis talent in the region, but groups in both Qatar and Dubai have expressed interest in creating ATP-managed national training centers.