Roger Federer has smashed a forehand return on it, Tiger Woods has cracked a tee-shot from it and David Coulthard performed a series of high altitude ‘donuts’ around it on his Infiniti Red Bull Racing F1 car. The Burj Al Arab might be known around the world for its iconic sail-shape stretching out into the Arabian Gulf, but it now has another claim to fame. Top sports stars are queuing up to play on the very top of its 212m high helipad, and last week, Chinese World No.1 table tennis players Long Ma and Shiwen Liu became the latest to join that elite list.
Playing a game outside on an exposed platform high above the water is not for the faint-hearted. But Ma and Liu were up for the challenge. “Before we got there, we were thrilled enough that we might get to go on a helicopter, but to play on it felt awesome,” said Ma. “Although when we first got up there, all our attention was on the surroundings. The view of Dubai was incredible.”
Ma and Liu were joined by Jike Zhang and Xiao Xia Li – the reigning Olympic gold medallists from the Dubai-sponsored Chinese national table tennis team – for a game of doubles. And while Federer had no trouble thwacking a tennis ball over the net for Andre Agassi to try and return, the wind from the helicopter as it circled above tested the full range of these world champions’ skills.
“Of course, a ping pong ball is much lighter than a tennis ball, so it’s more difficult than playing tennis up there, but we definitely gave it a good try,” said Ma. “It was hard to play, but by the end I think we’d nailed it. It was a great privilege for me and my teammates to follow in the footsteps of sporting greats like Roger Federer and Tiger Woods.”
When the game was over, Liu called the challenge “a very meaningful experience”, and it did have an added message. That evening, “China – Dubai: one energy” was projected onto the sail of the Burj Al Arab, to celebrate the growing ties between the Emirate and China.
“We were delighted to welcome the top Chinese table tennis players and be part of further strengthening the relationship between China and Dubai,” said Heinrich Morio, General Manager of the Burj Al Arab. “We’ve had the honour of hosting many of the world’s number one sports stars on our helipad and we enjoy getting involved with anything that is extraordinary.”
In addition to their helipad adventure, the players, who were in Dubai for the ITTF World Tour Grand Finals, enjoyed a series of trips to Dubai landmarks such as the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa.
Commenting on the experience, Shiwen Liu said: “It’s spectacular in terms of design – so modern! And when you get to the top it’s so exciting, you can see all the great views. It’s a must-do experience for visitors to Dubai!”
Reflecting on cultural activities such as a falconry experience, Liu added: “Our horizons have really been broadened! I’ve experienced so much culture here and hope I’ll have another chance to visit and see more of it.”
Ma Long agreed: “Dubai is an amazing city,” he said. “And the Dubai sponsorship [of China’s national team] will really help promote ping pong. Everybody will see that table tennis is not only favoured by Europeans and Asians, but by people from the Middle East too.”