While oil and water may not mix, oil and tennis seem to merge beautifully.
That will become perfectly obvious as the oil-rich United Arab Emirates hosts its annual tennis extravaganza on outdoor hard courts in Dubai beginning on February 20 and ending March 3, 2012.
The tournament known as the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships will begin with a week-long foray featuring the top women in the world to be followed later by the top-ranked men.
The luxurious accommodations plus the rich setting make this venue one of the more popular ones for the tennis pros who journey here year after year. In fact, it remains the site of one of Roger Federer’s chief training centers where the Swiss comes to get his body in prime condition for the long season ahead—usually during the hot month of July.
Despite the home-court advantage, Federer has not won in Dubai since 2007. He will be hoping to change that this year.
First Up: The Ladies, February 20-25
The women’s tournament held annually in Dubai has only been in existence since 2001 when Martina Hingis won the first championship title. Since that initial final, former world No. 1 Justin Henin claimed victory four times in 2003-2004 and 2006-2007.
The other repeat champion, Venus Williams, won the Dubai championship back-to-back in 2009-2010.
This year, however, neither Venus or sister Serena are entered in the field. World No. 2 Maria Sharapova is also absent.
The 2011 champion, Caroline Wozniacki, is back to defend her title, hoping to get her game back on the winning track. Coming into the 2012 Australian Open as the No. 1 player in the world, Wozniacki has dropped to No. 4 in the WTA.
Another loss in Dubai might propel her further down the ranking ladder.
But world No. 1 Victoria Azarenka will be competing "all out" for the title along with world No. 3 Petra Kvitova. Beyond Azarenka and Kvitova, the women’s field is packed with eight of the Top 10 women players—including Samantha Stosur, Li Na and Vera Zvonareva.
For the media, the “one-and-done” outcome for the ladies winning their first grand slam tournament has continued to be the main focus as pundits complain about the ranking system in general.
In 2011, that trend escalated with Li Na of China winning the French Open, Czech Petra Kvitova taking the Wimbledon title, followed by Aussie Sam Stosur topping American Serena Williams to win the 2011 US Open. Then Victoria Azarkena of Belarus replaced Belgian Kim Clijsters as the Australian Open champion in 2012.
Four slams produced four different champions.
Winning consistently at the top, it appears, is no longer possible for the ladies—although the current world No. 1 has the fire and the determination to end that trend. It will be interesting to see if Azarenka manages to escape the predictable post-slam depression that followed those grand slam winners preceding her.
All the new 2011 slam champions fell into a slump immediately after winning the biggest tournament of their respective careers. Azarenka, playing this week in Doha and next week in Dubai, has an immense opportunity to break the spell of the first-slam doldrums.
Then there is Wozniacki—who ended the year in both 2010 and 2011 as world No. 1. The Dane could never find a way to win a major title. As far as that goes, Wozniacki never even made it to a major final during her reign as No. 1—something the press will never let her forget.
All the ladies have extreme motivation to win with 900 points awarded to the champion. It promises to be intense competition from Day One.
The Men: February 27-March 3
Three of the Top Four male players in the world will battle in Dubai, which is the normal head-to-head meeting ground for the top seeds after the Australian Open.
Rafael Nadal, as he did from 2009-2011, is passing up the opportunity to test his vulnerable legs on the fast hard courts of Dubai—saving himself for Indian Wells and Miami.
In 2011 Roger Federer was the No. 1 seed while Novak Djokovic was seeded No. 2. But Federer failed completely in the final. The Serb won his third Dubai championship in a row, defeating the Swiss 6-3, 6-3.
In 2010, Federer withdrew from the tournament with a back injury. In the final, Russian Mikhail Youzhny battled Djokovic for the championship. Djokovic won 7-5, 5-7, 6-3 in a highly competitive match.
A year earlier, in 2009 Djokovic was the No. 1 seed without Federer or Nadal in the field. He won Dubai for the first time over Spaniard David Ferrer 7-5, 6-3.
Besides Djokovic, Federer and Murray, the men’s field in Dubai includes eight of the world’s Top 10 just like the ladies. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Janko Tipsarevic and Juan Martin del Potro will also be doing their utmost to bring home a win and 500 ranking points in the process.
This week, Federer, Berdych and del Potro continue to fight for the title in Rotterdam.
Next week, Tsonga, Fish, del Potro and Tipsarevic will face off at the Open 13 held in Marseille, France while world No. 5 David Ferrer takes to the clay courts at the Copa Claro in Buenos Aires.
World No. 3 Federer has won the Dubai tournament four times—in 2007 and from 2003-2005 with Nadal denying Federer in 2006. In total, Federer has appeared in six finals, coming in second to Nadal and Djokovic in 2006 and 2011, respectively.
This year, should Djokovic win again, he will surpass Federer by winning the tournament in Dubai four consecutive years compared to Federer’s three back-to-back wins plus one.
In this setting, a straight wins, hands down.
During the tournament’s history, no player had won the Dubai championship in back-to-back years until Roger Federer scored three consecutive championships from 2003-2005. Now Djokovic has repeated the feat, winning the Dubai title 2009-2011.
As the tournament celebrates its 20-year anniversary in 2012, will it be Djokovic winning four in a row or Federer taking the fifth? Maybe there is a new champion waiting in the wings?
Dubai offers great action in the desert prior to the US Hardcourt sweep through Indian Wells and Miami. Tune in.