Desert delight: Djokovic, Murray, Federer, Del Potro contest Dubai
Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Juan Martin del Potro are all in action at the Dubai Championships this week
The brief indoor tennis season that began on the Mediterranean coast in Montpellier on the last day of January has concluded its brief run just along the coast in Marseille.
Not until the post-US Open autumn will the men return under cover when, again, France will be first in line in Moselle.
Now, though, it is back to the heat of the sun and the glow of the moon as the men pick up where the Australian Open left off one month ago: back on the blue, outdoor rectangle of the hard court.
For some, the build-up towards the Masters double-header in Indian Wells and Miami has remained firmly rooted in the USA, where the likes of home-grown Andy Roddick and John Isner have plied their trade during an indoor season that culminated in the Memphis 500. They were joined by the young Canadian Milos Raonic—one of the February standouts with the title in San Jose and the final of Memphis.
Another group has forsaken the hard courts, both indoors and out, to enjoy instead the only month of tennis in South America. Those who love both the clay and the Latin beat have played the four-tournament ‘Golden Swing’ that reaches its climax this week at the glamorous Acapulco 500.
It is here that world No6 David Ferrer will attempt to win his third Mexican title in a row, having just won the Copa Claro in Buenos Aires. With him is the man he beat in last year’s final—and in yesterday’s Argentinean final—No12 Nicolas Almagro.
Aside from these two, together with this week’s top-12 debutant, Isner, every other man in the top dozen has headed to the desert of Dubai—with one notable absentee. World No2 Rafael Nadal announced back in Australia that he would play no tennis in February anywhere.
So what is it that draws the cream of tennis to the city that sits at the intersection of Europe, Asia and Africa?
It is a place that oozes wealth: It offers the biggest purse apart from the Australian Open so far this year. Its skyline is breathtaking and its transformation of the desert into a luxurious resort is ambition on a grand scale. Best of all, its climate—always warm and invariably dry—makes it the ideal proving ground for the hard-court rigours ahead.
Already the top women have played their $2m Premier event at the glamorous Aviation Club Tennis Centre. Now the top men take to Dubai’s shimmering stage, spearheaded by Novak Djokovic, who is breaking cover for the first time since winning the Australian Open.
At the bottom of the draw is part-time Dubai resident, Roger Federer, back to his regular training ground after winning the indoor Rotterdam 500 last week. Between them, the top two seeds have won the Dubai title seven times in the last nine years and also contested last year’s final, Djokovic winning his third straight trophy.
Lined up for the 20th running of the Dubai 500, though, are 30 other men all intent on—and many more than capable of—preventing the progress of the top two to another final.
The soaring Serb seems to have drawn the most lightweight opening quarter. None of his first three possible foes is ranked higher than 72, with the local wild card, 30-year-old Omar Awadhy, completely unranked.
Djokovic’s most likely quarter-final opponent is Davis Cup teammate, Janko Tipsarevic. The No9-ranked Serb should beat Ivan Ljubicic, just as he did last week in Marseille. But only once has Tipsarevic beaten Djokovic, at the WTFs with an exhausted Djokovic carrying a shoulder problem.
The first big challenge to the top seed will come in the semi-final from either No7 Tomas Berdych or No4, Andy Murray. For Dubai also welcomes the British man back to the tour for the first time since Melbourne, where he contested the semi-final against friend and foe Djokovic in a bruising five-setter.
Since then, Murray has taken time out to recuperate “a few minor injuries” that he picked up in Australia. He now looks fit and confident, and will need to be to get past the quarter-final stage for the first time in his fourth appearance here.
A potential meeting with Nikolay Davydenko in the second round should not pose a problem for, while the Russian produced some of his old magic in Rotterdam, he retired in the second round of Marseille last week with a foot injury.
But then Murray has to get past Berdych and, in four meetings, Murray has only managed that once, in Basel 2005. The tall, powerful Czech is on a good run, too—12 wins for two losses—winning in Montpellier and making the semis in Rotterdam. If the courts are fast in Dubai—which several players have claimed—he could make life very difficult for Murray.
Djokovic may, in fact, prefer a semi against the Czech: He has won all eight of their hard-court meetings. Murray, though, has taken Djokovic very close in their last three matches—and he won the Cincinnati title when the Serb was forced to retire from a set and 3-0 down. Both in Melbourne this year and last May in Rome, their matches could not have been harder to call, and the same will be true in Dubai should Murray get the better of Berdych.
Matches to watch out for: Murray v Berdych, QF; Murray v Djokovic, SF.
If Djokovic’s quarter feels light and airy, it appears to be at the expense of Federer, for the pick of the non-seeded players has sunk to the bottom quarter like fruit in a plum pudding.
The Swiss opens against the left-handed serve-and-volley skill of Michael Llodra who this week reached the final in Marseille to jump 10 places in the rankings to No40. Llodra also gave Juan Martin del Potro a fright in Rotterdam the week before in an impressive three-set, two-and-a-half-hour challenge.
Round two holds Feliciano Lopez, another left-handed, serve-and volley exponent currently ranked at a career-high No15. The Spaniard was one half of one of the matches of the tour last year in Madrid—against Federer.
Lopez faces another S-and-V man in Nicolas Mahut—and an array of such players on the fast courts in Dubai is a real early test. But the quarter-final also promises to be taxing for Federer, offering up the contrasting but equally dangerous packages of Mardy Fish or Richard Gasquet.
The No8-ranked American is never more at home than on fast, hard courts and the conditions in Dubai should suit him down to the ground. Indeed, his first match was done and dusted in under an hour, 6-1,6-1. He has also beaten Gasquet in their last three matches, all on hard courts. The No16 Frenchman will have to find his best form to earn a rerun of last year’s Dubai semi against Federer in this year’s quarters.
Federer faces still bigger obstacles at the semi-final stage: the 200lb Frenchman and new world No5, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, or two metres of Argentinean in del Potro. Both passed the 200-win mark this week and both have won a title this year: Tsonga in the similar conditions of Doha and del Potro this weekend in Marseille—having beaten Tsonga in a tight semi-final. Both, however, have very tricky openers against respectively Marcos Baghdatis and Alexandr Dolgopolov.
Tsonga and del Potro have shared their last two matches in near identical three-set scores, and both will fancy their chances against Federer. Del Potro failed to penetrate the low-bouncing, indoor court against the Swiss in Rotterdam but will find more power and pace in Dubai. Tsonga played Federer eight times last year and famously came back from two sets down to win at Wimbledon, beat him in Montreal and finally took him to three sets in both of their WTFs matches.
And all that is before Federer contemplates a possible final against the man who turned two match points against him into victory at the US Open: Djokovic. So although Federer has reached the final in six of the last seven Dubai 500s he has played, the tournament’s strap line seems more than apposite. The heat is on.
Matches to watch out for: Gasquet v Youzhny, Round 1; del Potro v Dolgopolov, Round 1; Baghdatis v Tsonga, Round 1; Fish v Federer, QF; Tsonga v del Potro, QF; del Potro v Federer, SF