Dubai is one of the pivotal 500 tournaments of the year: a hot, outdoor, hard-court launch pad for the first big Masters events of the year in North America.
It attracts the biggest names, all eager to get some top quality competition in the right conditions.
It starts a comfortable three weeks after the rigors of the Australian Open and finishes a good two weeks ahead of Indian Wells.
Dry and warm, luxurious and glamorous, it has all the advantages—which must make the misfortunes it has suffered for two successive years all the harder to handle.
Look, for example, at the starting lineup for 2009.
Injury claimed no fewer than four of the top seeds: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Nikolay Davydenko, and Fernando Verdasco.
This meant that, of the top 10 men, it boasted only three: Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, and Gilles Simon. There were just two more from the top 20: David Ferrer at No. 14 and Marin Cilic at No. 19.
The promoters continued to see their lackluster event struggle when Andy Murray withdrew after the second round with a virus that he'd picked up at the Australian Open.
His participation had been looking ever more uncertain as he struggled with his ankle, but the virus was an unexpected blow.
So one firework after another failed to light up the 2009 Dubai sky. The tournament was eventually able to let off a small firecracker to celebrate the top seed, Djokovic, lasting to the end and winning the title.
There were yet more woes for this classy tournament last year, and now it seems as though lightning really can strike twice in the same place.
Dubai has always been a happy stomping ground for Roger Federer: He won the title in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2007. He was also runner-up to Nadal in 2006.
It has usually been a good indicator of his form for the forthcoming season too.
In 2007, for example, Federer came to Dubai with the Australian Open title and would go on to win Wimbledon and the US Open, plus two Masters. He was also runner-up at Roland Garros and at three more Masters.
However, in 2008, he lost in the first round to Andy Murray. He’d been diagnosed with glandular fever after his semifinal exit in Melbourne and won no Masters events that year. His only Slam title was the US Open, and he lost his No. 1 ranking for the first time in four-and-a-half years.
Federer has a second home in Dubai and spends his extended training camps in the city. He’s therefore a huge draw.
So 2009 delivered a bombshell. After six consecutive years of playing the tournament, he pulled out with a back injury.
It became evident just how much the organisers were missing him at the players’ launch party. Who else could still make the front page simply by turning up for a bit of a chat dressed not in tennis garb, but a cardigan that managed to stay just on the sophisticated side of dowdy?
This year, though, things would be back to normal. After a first-round exit in 2008 and injury last year, the king was back.
So the organisers must have been devastated at the post-draw news of Federer’s lung infection. He would be out of the picture once more.
Well, not completely out of the picture. Perhaps the disappointment was alleviated a fraction by the extended interview Federer gave for the media at the weekend, but only by the very tiniest of fractions.
Nadal’s knees have been their own news story since last year’s French Open.
It was a shattering blow for fans and tournament organisers when Nadal pulled out of the Tour prior to last year’s Wimbledon.
He had, though, appeared to make a good recovery—certainly as far as his knees were concerned—right up to the end of January.
Then once again he fell foul of a knee injury and had to withdraw from both Rotterdam and Dubai.
It was at exactly this time last year that the warning bells first rang. Nadal’s knees were permanently swathed in support bandages. However, his movement around the courts never seemed compromised, and he constantly silenced the doubters.
Then he faded in the final at Rotterdam and decided to withdraw from Dubai for treatment.
It meant that this prestigious event had lost its two top seeds in pretty short order.
So here we are again: Nadal joining Federer on the sidelines before the tournament has even got under way. Talk about history repeating...
As if the absence of the two biggest names in tennis was not enough, the new kid on the block has gone the same way.
Juan Martin del Potro favored the American tournaments in 2009, but for the first time this year, the big man had opted for the tougher competition of Dubai.
However, Del Potro has been hampered, on and off, by tendinitis of the wrist since he won the US Open last September, and it flared up again during the Australian swing.
He has now been forced into an extended break that could last as long as two months.
That’s world No. 5 gone.
Robin Soderling, world No. 7, is another big new draw this year, but he has opted not to play despite an early exit from Marseille last week.
Ferrer, ranked 17th, has retreated to the clay of Acapulco, even though he benefited from Dubai’s depleted start list in 2009 and reached the final.
Yet more of a surprise is another big draw, Verdasco, who decided to take a wild card for the Mexican clay rather than enter Dubai. He was offered the Acapulco slot after Gael Monfils withdrew with his own knee problems.
Another unexpected decision is that of John Isner, fresh from his hard-court final success in Memphis. He, too, has gone to Acapulco rather than Dubai. One can only assume that choice is to help prepare for the Davis Cup tie against Serbia in a couple of weeks’ time.
Andy Roddick, who was scheduled to represent the top 10 in Dubai, is yet another loss. He pulled out last week, presumably due to the shoulder problems he’s been carrying, though these were not cited.
He pulled out last year too—not with injury but for political reasons. More of that to follow!
It’s rare for politics to become an issue in a tennis tournament, but the 2009 Dubai was one such occasion.
As if the organisers didn’t have enough to worry about with men falling right, left, and center, the U.A.E. caused a furor by refusing to admit Israel’s Shahar Peer to the country.
The authorities even considered doing the same to the men’s doubles player, Andy Ram, but pulled back at the last moment.
This particular rain shower fizzled out Roddick’s participation, though he did not make explicit whether this was down to politics, a hernia, or the impending Davis Cup tie. There is a similar fuzziness to his decision to withdraw this year too.
Fortunately for the 2010 women’s event, Peer not only took part but reached the semifinals.
Had an Israeli player been banned entry again, one suspects the tournament may have folded altogether. As it is, there have been a few beacons of hope for this beleaguered event.
The tournament started its 18th year with the seal of approval of the players. For the sixth time in seven years, Dubai was voted the players’ favorite ATP World Tour 500 event. There’s a certain irony to this, given the number who have failed to play.
The tournament, backed by its sponsor Barclays, is also benefiting from new investment. It will move to a new site with 15,000-seat capacity and a retractable roof in two years’ time.
The organisers claim, too, that 2010 is a sellout year, though looking at some of the broadcast matches, it is hard to believe. Could the swathes of empty seats for the night matches be entirely down to the absence of the Rog-and-Raf show?
If the fans do stick around, though, they can expect to see some very competitive tennis from the top-20 players who are there.
With Federer’s withdrawal, Cilic is in a great position to impose himself on the top quarter and set up a fascinating encounter with Murray. He may even have his eye on the title.
Murray himself looked a little lackluster in his first-round match. He’s arrived in Dubai from a long layoff, and he needs to gain points if he’s to keep up the pressure on the top four places. If he stays fit this time, he must also be a strong contender for the title and is a big draw in Dubai.
There’s was potential for a cracker of a semi between Djokovic and Davydenko. The latter had the added incentive that he could have put on some serious ranking points. But in another blow for the tournament, he retired half way through his second round match.
The results in Dubai will therefore shed very limited light on the prospects for Indian Wells and Miami. With so many gaps in the draw, neither Djokovic nor Cilic will have a chance to prove himself against all comers.
How different from the Dubai of past years that boasted the complete set of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and Davyenko. Maybe next year.