Not So Much Desert Storm as Damp Squib for Dubai's Tennis

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Not So Much Desert Storm as Damp Squib for Dubai's Tennis

You know a tournament is not setting the world alight when its news stories relate to off-court personalities rather than tennis.

There’s Murray aboard a luxury boat cruising Dubai’s spectacular skyline. Djokovic is in a flight simulator. Simon, bizarrely, is featured shopping in the Dubai Duty Free, its website pronouncing proudly that “the third seed was presented with a basket of gifts from the Dubai Duty Free staff.”

Not exactly fireworks, you see.

The closest Dubai got to front page news arrived—as it so often does—in the form of Roger Federer.

Not even playing in the tournament, he nevertheless broke cover to attend the players’ party, dressed in a cardigan that just managed to stay on the sophisticated side of dowdy.

Dubai’s problems, of course, started before the tennis did. First, there was the loss of Federer himself with a back injury. The second blow was Rafa Nadal’s withdrawal with knee problems. Injury claimed more top seeds in the form of Nikolay Davydenko and Fernando Verdasco.

Then the tournament organisers had to deal with the political brouhaha of Israeli competitors either being refused entry—in the women’s tournament—or being granted entry—in the men’s doubles.

This particular rain shower, in turn, fizzled out Roddick’s participation, though it remained unclear whether his absence was due to politics, a hernia or the beckoning of his country’s Davis Cup ambitions.

So one firework after another failed to light up the Dubai sky.

The promoters continued to see their lack-lustre event struggle in Andy Murray’s first round match against Sergiy Stakhovsky.

Murray drew a big crowd—in contrast to the half empty stands on several of the early days. But the game was a mixed affair of swinging fortunes, ankle injuries and one of the most unjustified retirements in many a year.

Murray might well have felt nonplussed when, up 5-3 and 30-0 in the final set, he saw his opponent walk to the net rather than serve out the two points that would have given Murray the win.

Fireworks temporarily flared into life when Marat Safin took to the court with Richard Gasquet—close in rankings and close in this match. These two hugely gifted players put on a show to delight the audience.

There were big serves and stunning backhands from Gasquet; big serves and broken rackets from Safin. It was the former who held it together long enough to win a classy encounter.

Gasquet went on to perform equally well in another attractive match against Simone Bolelli. The Italian plays elegant all-court tennis in a style somewhat at odds with that of his compatriots.

It’s brought him the reward of top ranking in his country, and it very nearly gave him a win over Gasquet.

The Frenchman was one of the few to benefit from the next shower to hit the tournament. Murray announced his withdrawal with a virus.

His place in the event was looking ever-more uncertain as he struggled with his ankle, despite a decent win over Arnaud Clement, but the virus was an unexpected blow.

His talk about tiredness and bouts of illness dating back to Melbourne will ring alarm bells for his growing band of admirers and for his Davis Cup compatriots. It smacks of the curse of numerous tennis players before him: glandular fever.

A glimmer of good news for Dubai ticket-holders was the reincarnation of David Ferrer as a player worthy of his former top-10 status. He’s slipped to a lowly 14 of late, but his resurgence against Gasquet signalled a return to form that will delight fans of his gritty, hard-working presence.

And so to Djokovic. Though top seeded, he came into Dubai with relatively mediocre results, and the first rounds in the desert hardly inspired the fans.

So much is expected of this man and his tennis. His talent can set the court alight, his temperament can pour water on it. His semi against Simon showed some of the good and some of the bad.

He served superbly, played some stunning cross-court drives with the sort of pace that only perfect timing and technique can achieve. His running eats up the court, his flexibility helps him reach balls that should be winners.

Yet when he is outplayed—as he was frequently in this match—his behaviour is that of a teen-ager deprived of the TV remote.

First he won a love game on serve. Next he lost one point to his opponent and the pantomime began: head rolling in distress, racket hammered into the court, the gesticulating to his box.

His opponent was left twiddling his thumbs as the ball-bouncing increased, and the end-changes stretched beyond their allotted time.

Finally, the wiry bundle that is Simon was ground down, and Djokovic claimed the win. He went on to take his first title of 2009.

Eventually, Djokovic may learn to let his tennis talk louder than his body-language, and the world will be spared the obligatory shirt-removal. For now, Dubai can let off a small firecracker in celebration that, in the end, the seedings and the talent came good.

In many ways, events on the other side of the Atlantic have been more interesting and more revealing. Though Mexico was offering the same 500 points as Dubai, the media spotlight refused to penetrate Central America.

Acapulco may not have produced fireworks, but several embers were fanned into promising flames.

The start-list for the event claimed one of the players of the moment, Gael Monfils, and a newly-invigorated Tommy Robredo. The latter faced off in the semis, for the fourth time in as many tournaments, against Jose Acasuso.

With two titles and two semis at consecutive events, Robredo must be a hot tip to make an impact when the clay season begins in earnest in Europe in April.

But more interesting, Monfils has used the Mexican launch-pad to make a serious assault into the top ten.

He had no points to defend this week and has very few to defend in Indian Wells and Miami. Indeed, he can only gain points between now and Roland Garros. In theory, therefore, he could stride deep into the elite rankings with each month that passes.

While Acapulco set up a couple of mouth-watering prospects, Dubai shed little light on the build-up to the big 1,000-pointers.

With so many top players absent, and so many injuries posted on the locker-room door, it’s impossible to predict who will even make it to North American, let alone who might win the big points. What’s more, Djokovic still hasn’t really had the chance to prove himself.

The same might be said of the glamour-tinted star of the Arabian Gulf. Dubai has ambitions to be one of the major events of the annual tour, but it certainly didn’t set the tennis world alight this year.

The absence of crowd-pleasing Rog-and-Raf fireworks had a major effect on its impact. But the thin crowds for some of the matches raise questions about the city’s real desire for tennis as opposed to red-carpet photo-shoot.

It will certainly need to avoid another dose of criticism like the one delivered by title winner Venus Williams.

Dubai might also need to watch its back as heavyweight cousin, Abu Dhabi, flexes its economic muscles for supremacy in the region.

Laser lightshow next year, anyone?

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