The year was 2002. There was quite a buzz and a feeling of excitement and energy as the Aviation Club was gearing up to host the annual Dubai Tennis Championships.
Everyone was talking about a 20-year-old talent from Basel, Switzerland who was tipped to be one of the new stars of the sport.
But they were soon to be disappointed. Seeded sixth on the back of a doubles victory in Rotterdam, Roger Federer won his first-round match against Romanian Adrian Voinea but then succumbed in straight sets to Germany’s Rainer Schüttler, without even putting up a semblance of a fight.
It was a huge let-down for the organisers and Dubai’s rapidly growing legion of tennis fans.
However, Federer would gain retribution the following year when he returned to defeat Czechoslovakia’s Jiri Novak, and claim the first of his epic eight titles in the emirate.
“It was a pretty bizarre story,” Federer, said recalling his false start in Dubai. “But at that time I didn’t feel like laughing. It was about my pride, my reputation. “
The rest, as they say, is history and the start of a partnership that endures to this day.
Fast forward several years and Federer has become an ambassador for Dubai and also the owner of a penthouse at Le Reve (with means ‘The Dream’ in French) an exceptional luxurious address in the Dubai Marina district.
It is conceivable that following his retirement from the sport on Thursday, the world’s highest earning sports star is likely to spend a lot of time at this pad with his wife Mirka and two sets of twins, 12-year-old girls Myla and Charlene and seven-year-old boys Leo and Lenny, just watching the ocean sway and the sunset from the comfort of his Dh 55 million home.
Should they feel like doing something exotic Federer, Mirka, and the kids can take a helicopter ride with just the press of a button through the luxury building’s 24-hour concierge service.
He will also have plenty of time to reflect on a career that was more than just the sum of its parts.
Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman & CEO of Dubai Duty-Free, who together with his wife Breeda, has known Federer for years and has developed an enviable bond that ties families together, paid tribute to the legend upon his retirement in an exclusive message to Khaleej Times.
“Roger Federer has been one of the greatest ambassadors for Dubai, for Dubai Duty Free and for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, in particular,” he said.
“We have a long and special relationship with Roger, he has appeared 14 times between his first appearance in 2002 and his last in 2019, where he won his eight Dubai titles and marked his 100th career title.
“It’s always been an absolute pleasure to have Roger, fondly referred to as being the GOAT, the greatest player of all time, and certainly whenever he played here, there is a very special atmosphere as he is much loved here and that’s something that we will all miss,” he added.
“We would like to thank him for all he has done for the tournament and wish him the best of luck for the rest of the year and beyond.”
McLoughlin could well have spoken for the hundreds of Federer fans in the UAE, who miss witnessing the winning culture that elevated him above his peers and saw him re-write records upon records in Dubai — from most titles (eight), most finals (10), most consecutive titles (three) and most consecutive finals (five).
From his 2002 false start, where he was even in danger of losing his prize money for ‘not making an effort,’ Federer’s love affair with Dubai grew as his star began to soar, year by year.
Even if he’s not playing in the Dubai Tennis Championships, Federer is known to conduct his off-season training in Dubai where he is known to hit balls with friends at the secluded One And Only Royal Mirage luxury getaway.
There are no crowds, no paparazzi, no autograph seekers, just the quiet that an athlete seeks as he prepares for his next tournament.
Here in Dubai, Federer was able to train smarter and harder which became the keys to his success. It is well documented that winners don’t get to where they are by luck, it’s the countless hours that they put in behind the scenes that help them reach great heights.
The Swiss great once put into context his special connection with the emirate, saying: “Dubai is a perfect platform for me to do training blocks in peace during the season. It is also a retreat to recharge your energies. The big plus is the anonymity that I have here.”
But there were moments of extreme thrills as well like in 2005 when he played a game with former American rival Andre Agassi on the helicopter pad of the seven-star Burj Al Arab hotel.
“It is incredible how the city grew,” says Federer.
There are a lot of similarities between Dubai and the city that he calls home away from home. They both embody perseverance and share a common bond for hard work in projecting their end goal and the continuous efforts made to reach it.
For Federer, it’s time to relax and enjoy his retirement as Dubai continues to grow around him.