Dubai 2021: Thiem seeks winning ways again, as Rublev looks for fifth straight 500 crown

Popular Dubai has expanded draw to 46; all 16 seeds ranked 32 and over

Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem (Photo: Marianne Bevis)

The high-profile Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships continue from one big tournament, the WTA1000 event, straight into one of the most prestigious 500s in the men’s tennis calendar.

And in these uncertain times of quarantines, empty stands, and restricted travel caused by a year-long coronavirus pandemic that continues to limit lives all across the world, the need to offer as many opportunities to players as possible has seen the usual 32-man draw expanded to 46.

The eight seeds have, this time around, become 16, with half of them ranked in the top 20, the rest ranked 32 or above. It is, make no mistake, a quality field.

Yet it was, not long ago, expected to be even more star-packed. However world No2 Rafael Nadal, who has been struggling with a back injury, turned down the offer of a wild card. No6 Roger Federer decided to take the cautious route in his rehab after playing two matches in Doha this week—his first in a year following knee surgery. He opted out to focus on training, and his preparations for clay and grass.

Andy Murray, like Nadal and Federer, a former champion in Dubai, also withdrew following the announcement of the birth of his fourth child. And last year’s champion, Novak Djokovic, playing in one of the final events before tennis went into lockdown, will not defend his Dubai title after reviewing his 2021 schedule in the light of the concertinaed, revised calendar.

One more former champion pulled out at the last minute, 2016 winner Stan Wawrinka, ranked 20, citing fatigue. And already, No10 Matteo Berrettini and No12 Gael Monfils had pulled out of the draw.

That has left just one former champion, 2018’s Roberto Bautista Agut, who had to hot-foot it from Doha where he was runner-up yesterday. And the man who beat him, Nikoloz Basilashvili, enjoyed the bonus of a ‘performance bye’ to mark his late arrival in Dubai.

And so the draw is topped by No4 Dominic Thiem, who will try to win his first title of the season, and his first since winning his debut Major at the US Open last September. It is only his second appearance in the Dubai draw, the first time being way back in 2015. But since then, he has won all 17 of his titles and become a Masters and Major champion.

The good news for Thiem is that Bautista Agut is at the other end of the draw: Good, because the former champion beat Thiem in the first round of that only Dubai appearance, and also beat him in his second match in Doha last week.

Top-seeded Thiem will face one of two qualifiers in Round 2, and his first seed is scheduled to be No14 Filip Krajinovic. The quarter-final could be particularly tricky, bringing not just seeds David Goffin and Borna Coric but the unseeded Kei Nishikori, who is gradually working his way back into form after elbow surgery—though he needed to apply ankle strapping part way through his opening win over Reilly Opelka.

Thiem was pragmatic in his pre-tournament press conference:

“I’m on the right way, definitely. I’m not at the top of my game right now. Australia was pretty strange and also tough to digest in all aspects, so I’m still trying to find the top of my game again and to work hard every day.

“Strong tournaments like Doha last week and here this week are good opportunities to get matches, to play against strong opponents, and I hope I make another step in the right direction now.”

No3 seed Denis Shapovalov, who heads the other top quarter, has some tricky opposition before facing either No8 seed Karen Khachanov or No9 seed Alex de Minaur in the quarters: Jan-Lennard Struff, Richard Gasquet, and Delray Beach champion Hubert Hurkacz are here.

But in the bottom quarter, topped by No2 seed Andrey Rublev, there are some big obstacles to the ambitions of the young Russian who has dominated ATP500 competition for the last year.

He is chasing a fifth straight 500 title this week, and he has not lost an ATP500 match since his appearance in Dubai 2020. He led the tour last year with five titles, and maintained his momentum by beginning this year with a 13-2 record—a share of the ATP Cup title with Daniil Medvedev, a quarter-final run at the Australian open, and then the Rotterdam title.

Rublev’s second match promises two in-form men from Doha, the titlist Basilashvili or the man who the Georgian beat in the semis there, Taylor Fritz. These face each other in their first Dubai match.

His next seed could be Pablo Carreno Busta, but there are some more interesting names in this segment, including Rotterdam runner-up, Marton Fucsovics.

The Bautista Agut quarter, however, promises to be a real test of the Spaniard’s resilience and stamina. His first match is against Marseille semi-finalist Matthew Ebden, and his second will be against the winner between two top-notch young players meeting for the first time: Jannik Sinner and Alexander Bublik. The quarter-final, in turn, will feature Dan Evans or possibly the Australian Open semi-finalist Aslan Karatsev.

If the seedings in this quarter play out, though, Rublev will face Bautista Agut in a second semi-final in the space of a week.

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