But one look at the men’s draw and, more impressive still, the prize money, and the Qatar Exxonmobil Open in Doha leaves no doubt: This is an ATP 250 that flexes its muscles.
No other tournament at this level on the tour offers even half the purse. It even out does some of the 500 events—and the standing of the men who line up to play a part is its reward.
This year, the best player in the world, Novak Djokovic, tops the field, attempting to put right his only non-final result of 2015. He lost in the quarters to Ivo Karlovic before going on a still unbroken run of 15 finals.
Seeded No2 is Rafael Nadal, ranked five and with a fine record in Doha: He was champion in 2014, finalist in 2010 and twice a semi-finalist, too. He also has some ghosts to lay in the desert: Last year he lost in the first round and has not won a hard-court title since this very tournament two years ago.
Also in contention have been last year’s finalists, champion and No7 seed David Ferrer—though he made a swift exit—and No6 seed Tomas Berdych.
And if all that was not good enough, the tournament won a title of its own, delivered by Djokovic to the tournament’s director: joint winner of the ATP250 Tournament of the Year. And as that is determined by the players themselves, Doha is clearly doing an awful lot right, particular since it was its fourth time of winning.
So what could make the sponsors, owners and fans even more happy as the tournament cranked up to the final weekend?
Well a title bout between the two top seeds, two of the most decorated players in the Open era, Djokovic and Nadal, would fit the bill.
For these two superstars of the tour have the most played-out rivalry in tennis and, what’s more, stand at 23-23 wins apiece, 62 sets to 61, though that does not tell the story of the last five years. For that has been a period during which Djokovic elevated his level to win 16 from 23, and eight of the last nine.
Before that, though, there were two other players to beat, and the first to do the business was a Nadal aiming to reach his 99th final,
He took on world No94 Illya Marchenko, the man who beat Ferrer and No7 seed Jeremy Chardy. He proved less of a challenge to the Spaniard, who won the opening set with little trouble, 6-3, and with his serve looking particularly strong—14 from 14 first serve points to the good.
The Ukrainian 28-year-old held firm through break points in the opening game of the second set, but Nadal broke in the fifth, which was enough to take the match, 6-4, in 78 minutes.
The second semi featured Djokovic against Berdych, a much tougher match on paper but, in practice, theirs has been a surprisingly one-sided rivalry considering the consistently high level that the big Czech has maintained.
In 2015, Berdych won his 500th match, qualified for his sixth straight World Tour Finals, and reached a career-high No4 in May. In the upcoming Australian Open he has been particularly strong, reaching the quarters for the last five years, making the semis in the last two.
But against Djokovic, things have always been tough for Berdych: Only twice in 23 matches had he won, and never on hard courts. In the early stages of this match, Berdych started strong, serving big, firing his forehand and backhand deep and hard from the baseline. It earned him an immediate break, and he was on the verge of a second break for 4-1 until Djokovic upped his serving level, held, and went on a five-game run for the set, 6-3.
Berdych regrouped, and pressured Djokovic hard throughout the second set. He fought off immediate break points, and had the chance to break in the sixth game, but amid some fine rallies that found the lines countless times, there was little to choose between them, as the stats affirmed: Djokovic making 20 of 26 first serves, Berdych 20 from 28; Djokovic 9-14 second serves, Berdych 9-15—and the return numbers told the same story. The set was separated by three points in 83, roughly the difference in the eventually tie-break, which went to Djokovic, 7-6(3).
So Doha has got the match it wanted, with Djokovic aiming for his 60th title from his 16th straight final.
Djokovic summed it up: “I guess it’s a pretty important match tomorrow! It’s been a long rivalry but it’s another exciting challenge for both of us.”
Surely the first of many more encounters in 2016.
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