Federer and Djokovic take their rivalry to Dubai
Duo are locked in a battle for supremacy as they face the prospect of a 21st match at next week's Dubai 500
Dubai is one of the pivotal 500 tournaments of the year: a hot, outdoor, hard-court launch pad for the first big Masters events in North America.
Dry and warm, luxurious and glamorous, it has all the advantages. So while some of the players spread their favours between the competing attractions of Acapulco and Florida, it is Dubai that has invariably drawn the biggest names.
Since 2003, Roger Federer has been title-holder no fewer than four times, Rafael Nadal once and Novak Djokovic twice.
Yet that illustrious roll of honour disguises a Midas touch with more than a hint of fool’s gold. For Dubai, in recent years, has been cursed by a plague of withdrawals from its star turns.
Look at 2009. Injury claimed no fewer than four of the top seeds: Federer, Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco. It was left with just five men from the top 20, headed by Djokovic and Andy Murray, and the latter added to Dubai’s woes by pulling out after the second round with a virus.
Then 2010 showed that lightning really can strike twice when it again lost Federer, this time with a lung infection, lost Nadal once again with a knee injury, and lost world No5 Juan Martin Del Potro with a wrist injury that was to take him out for most of the year.
And 2011? Well once more, the chilly finger of fate has touched the richest of all the 500 events.
Nadal, for a third successive year, is absent while he continues to heal a thigh tear.
Murray has withdrawn with a wrist problem that flared up after his first-round loss to Marcos Baghdatis in Rotterdam.
Also missing is Andy Roddick who, though the title-holder in 2009, turned his back on the UAE -generally regarded as a political gesture over the country’s refusal of a visa to Israel’s Shahar Peer -and he has not returned since. For the third year in a row, his Masters groundwork will instead be focused on the indoor hard courts of the Memphis 500.
Of the other top-10 players, Fernando Verdasco and David Ferrer will vie for the 500 title on the clay of Acapulco -a particularly strange change of direction for the former who has played the indoor circuit of north America since the Australian Open.
Last week’s Rotterdam champion, Robin Soderling, has elected to stay of Europe, as he did last year. He is currently sweeping through the indoor courts in Marseille and will then head home to play Davis Cup. That proved a sound foundation last year when he went on to the semis at both Indian Wells and Miami. Why disrupt a winning pattern?
Meanwhile, del Potro also seems to have forsaken the Middle East for good. He is steadily working himself back into form via San Jose and Memphis, reaching the semi-finals in both, and next week heads to the outdoor heat of Delray Beach. He is having to do everything the hard way from a lowly ranking of 298, but brings a touch of class wherever he plays.
Even the headline-grabbing newcomers of 2011 have opted for the Americas. Young Canadian Milos Raonic, who continued his assault on the rankings from 156 at the end of 2010 to inside the top 50 next week, is following a first title in San Jose with a semi-final finish in Memphis. Alexandr Dolgopolov, having shown his class on the hard courts, is now enjoying his top-30 ranking on the clay circuit.
So Dubai is having to work hard to keep its place in the spotlight, despite having now won its sixth ATP Tournament of the Year award. Next year, for its 20th anniversary, its heavy investment will appear in a new 15,000-seat capacity arena with a retractable roof. This year, though, it will attract the big pre-Masters kudos for two reasons: Federer and Djokovic.
Dubai has always been a happy stomping ground for Federer: He won the title in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007, and was runner-up to Nadal in 2006. He lives here when not in Switzerland and it is the base for most of his training camps. So Dubai is second only to Basel for the Federer ‘home’ crowd, and his return after a three-year absence will be celebrated.
The No2 seed returns as the reigning champion, and he won in 2009 as well. This time, though, he comes as the Australian Open champion, too.
As if Federer and Djokovic making their first appearances since Melbourne was not enough, the Dubai organisers will be hoping for something special from their two stars. On the horizon is the possibility of a 21st instalment in what has become one of the most compelling rivalries in tennis.
Now only two short of the match-ups between Federer and Nadal, they have met six times in the last six months and have exchanged the Nos 2 and 3 rankings almost as many times.
With just 85 points between them, Djokovic can again challenge Federer’s ranking at Indian Wells, though Miami, where the Serb fell in his first match last year, offers an even better prospect.
Both have been in great form during that intensive six-month swing. Djokovic comes into Dubai with three finals and two semi-finals from six ATP events, plus a heart-lifting win for Serbia in the Davis Cup and his second Major in Australia. He could just be the most confident man on the tour.
Federer, for his part, won their last three encounters in 2010, going on to take the WTF title, but he lost to Djokovic in Melbourne and is without a Major title for the first time since he won Wimbledon in 2003.
How he responds to the Djokovic challenge in Dubai may be a key indicator to his entire 2011 campaign.
Before that sizzling rivalry can be played out, however, there are a few names in Dubai who may not have the star power of Nadal, Soderling and Murray but have great pedigree and the potential to upset even the best.
World No11, Mikhail Youzhny, produced some stunning tennis in narrowly losing his quarterfinal against Soderling in Rotterdam, and is already in the semis in Marseille this week. He was runner-up in Dubai last year.
No7 Tomas Berdych has started to post some good results in 2011 after a poor conclusion to 2010. In Rotterdam, his first-round demolition of the Guillermo Garcia-Lopez -dropping just six points on serve -was outstanding, but his run was brought to an abrupt halt by a dose of flu. He reached the quarters in Marseille this week and, with a return to full health, he could be just as big a challenge in the run up to Indian Wells and Miami as he was last year.
The middle ranks are also full of intrigue and possibilities. Gilles Simon almost terminated Federer’s run in the second round of Melbourne. Ivan Ljubicic reached the semi-finals in Rotterdam last week. New top-20 entrant, Victor Troicki, also made a semi-final run in Rotterdam.
Add in Baghdatis, Ernests Gulbis and a Nikolay Davydenko fighting to stay inside the top 40, and there is plenty of room for upset.
But it would be no surprise to anyone to see a 21st face-off between the two former champions come Dubai’s climax: Federer seeking revenge over Djokovic for his Melbourne defeat.