Dubai 2020: Top dogs, led by No1 Djokovic and No2 Nadal, break cover as Indian Wells/Miami loom

Djokovic targets fifth Dubai title to consolidate No1; Nadal chooses Acapulco

Novak Djokovic
Novak Djokovic (Photo: DDFTennis)

Two of the most popular ATP500s begin this week on opposite sides of the northern hemisphere.

Acapulco and Dubai sit on similar latitudes, enjoy year-round warm weather, though are separated by almost 12 hours on the clock. The two tournaments have also, on paper at least, become something like rivals for the attention of the cream of men’s tennis.

Many times over the last 15 years, the Dubai Duty Free Championships have been voted the players’ favourite 500. But since Acapulco switched from clay to hard courts in 2014, the Mexican city has captured many hearts, along with the newly promoted 500 on Queen’s grass.

Twice Acapulco has claimed the ATP500 award in the last two years, and its ever-improving line-up of players, keen to complete their preparations for the imminent Indian Wells/Miami Masters double, continues this spring.

And in a short month jam-packed with 12 tournaments, fans have waited until this concluding week of February to see the biggest names break cover: the two men who have exchanged the No1 ranking three times in the last 18 months, current top dog Novak Djokovic and No2 Rafael Nadal.

In theory, at least, it is possible for the Spaniard to reclaim the No1 with victory in Acapulco, though it would need Djokovic to fall very early in Dubai. And that is a scenario that looks highly unlikely.

Along with Nadal in Acapulco, other players to make their first appearance since the Australian Open include Alex de Minaur, returning from injury and scheduled to face Nadal in the second round if he beats fellow 20-year-old, the fast improving Miomir Kecmanovic. Other dangerous returners including No3 seed Stan Wawrinka, defending champion Nick Kyrgios, and Australian Open semi-finalist and No2 seed Alexander Zverev, who was runner-up to Kyrgios last year.

Yet in both Acapulco and Dubai, some significant players are missing—significant because they have made inroads in both events in the past but also a big impact on the biggest Masters double-header of the year in Indian Wells and Miami: Andy Murray, Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin del Potro all continue their severe injury troubles—a list to which Kevin Anderson has lately added his name. Most significant, though, is the withdrawal of five-time Indian Wells champion, four-time and defending Miami champion, and eight-time and defending Dubai champion, Roger Federer.

The world No3 announced this week that he has undergone knee surgery and will miss this entire hard-court swing and beyond. And so, in the Dubai draw, Djokovic now stands head and shoulders above all his fellow contenders, favourite to win the title, and surely poised to extend his burgeoning tally of weeks at No1.

Who, then, does he have to negotiate to lift the famous trophy next Saturday? Well as luck would have it, he drew wild card Malek Jaziri, ranked 259, the last man he beat in his most recent appearance in Dubai in 2016.

Along with Jaziri, wild cards Mohamed Safwat and Prajnesh Gunneswaran are also in Djokovic’s quarter, along with the 74-ranked Philipp Kohlschreiber, who enjoyed a late promotion out of qualifying into the main draw. Djokovic’s first seed should be Karen Khachanov, with Gael Monfils or Benoit Paire lined up for the semis.

At the bottom of the draw, though, is the interesting prospect of last year’s runner-up, Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is 2-2 against Djokovic, with both the Greek’s wins coming on hard outdoor courts.

However, Tsitsipas has to hot-foot it from his title run in Marseille, and opens against world No27 Pablo Carreno Busta, who impressed in Rotterdam a fortnight ago. Then comes another dangerous player, Hubert Hurkacz, who also took Tsitsipas to three sets in Rotterdam after shining during the ATP Cup.

The Greek’s first seed should be former champion Roberto Bautista Agut, though here also are top-30 men such as Jan-Lennard Struff and Nikoloz Masilashvili. The semis should bring either Andrey Rublev or Fabio Fognini, though again, there is a string of dangerous unseeded men in this half, including Dan Evans and Filip Krajinovic.

It is a formidable task, then, for Tsitsipas to reach the final again, while Djokovic has seldom made a more convincing start to a season: He is 13-0, after leading Serbia to ATP Cup victory and then winning a record eighth Australian Open.

No wonder he looked and sounded confident when he talked on Sunday in Dubai, and first off about his decision to also play doubles with Marin Cilic this week.

“I feel like it’s a great way of preparing myself for the singles, having some match play… I’m glad to play with Marin. We never played together [but] we’ve been talking about it for years. I have serious intentions for doubles—I don’t play doubles very often, but when I do, I like to play as best as I possibly can.”

He clearly feels very at home in Dubai for several reasons. He explained:

“Feel great. I started off the season in the best possible way. Came to Dubai with my family, children, so spending a lot of time on the beach—quality family time during the day, playing during the night.

“I really enjoy this city. I’ve been coming to Dubai in the pre-season for at least seven to 10 days of training before I head to Australia. I feel very welcomed. There’s also a very big Serbian community here so big support in the stands. Can’t wait to kick off.”

Almost inevitably, Djokovic was asked about Federer’s withdrawal: Dubai has, after all, not only featured strongly in the Swiss star’s tennis but also as a second home.

“It was a surprise, to be honest. I knew he was struggling with an injury in the Australian Open. I think no one knew really what is the injury, what is the extent of that injury… I really don’t like to see anybody going through a process of surgery… I know that for doctors, that’s routine-like procedure, but it’s quite invasive. I know it creates also a psychological trauma.

“I’m really sad to see Roger and Kevin Anderson going through that kind of procedure. I hope that they will be back very soon. Roger is Roger. This sport needs him.”

But what of Djokovic’s own prospects and his current form?

“I’m aware of [my winning] streak. I’m aware of the fact that I’m feeling great on the court. Of course, when you win that many matches, it translates to your high level of confidence.

“But I’m aware that it could easily be disturbed, as well, and lost. I try to approach every tournament and every match as a fresh start. Continuation of the great streak, yes, from the confidence perspective, but fresh start game-wise.”

And if he needs any further boost to his confidence, it is there in his statistics in Dubai: four titles from five finals, and a 36-6 record, do not lie.

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