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

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.”

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