Novak Djokovic headed into Dubai this past week as the defending champion, carrying with him a bad case of nerves. He had good reason to be on edge because he was defending 500 points, having won the Dubai Tennis Championships in 2009.
Dubai remains a high water-mark on the tennis landscape and one of the favorites of the players who use it as a warm-up for the U.S. Hard Court swing through Indian Wells and Miami, two ATP Masters Series events, each worth 1,000 points for the champion.
As the No. 2 player in the world, Djokovic feels the hot breath of Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray on his neck as the two tennis giants begin their earnest campaigns to overtake the Serb’s No. 2 spot as soon as possible.
Nadal sits only 940 points back, while Murray remains 1,010 points behind Djokovic in the current rankings race. Pressures like those leave even the strongest and most determined a little rattled.
The Serb found himself facing a potentially lethal field that early on was only missing Rafael Nadal. Seeded players included Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, Nikolay Davydenko, and Andy Roddick, as well as many other top 20 players. In other words, the field was packed.
But that was early on and soon the pack began to loosen as players started falling away. First, del Potro was injured and unable to play. Then Federer came down with a lung infection and Andy Roddick withdrew from action touting an injury.
Soon Djokovic and Murray were the only top-five players left in contention as play got underway. But Davydenko, Gilles Simon, Marin Cilic, and Jo Wilfried Tsonga remained in the draw as well as many other high seeds, making the field very competitive and deep.
Murray was seeded in the upper half of the draw with Djokovic seeded in the bottom half. Should the seeds hold, they would meet in the finals.
Early on, the action was first-rate, with Marcos Baghdatis upsetting the No. 8 seed Frenchman Simon during the first round. Tsonga benefited when fellow Frenchman Michael Llodra was forced to retire during their match with Tsonga having held on to win the opening set tie-breaker. Llodra had been the winner the previous week in Marseilles.
During the second round, journeyman Michael Berrer from Germany took the first set from Davydenko and the Russian was forced to retire from the match with an injury while Tsonga met and was defeated by a red hot Ivan Ljubicic.
The big upset, however, came when Janko Tipsarevic took out Andy Murray 7-6, 4-6, 6-4. Tipsarevic often has his best days against the top-ranked players, once having stretched Roger Federer to five tense sets during the Australian Open in 2008.
Jurgen Melzer took out the No. 6 seed Marin Cilic 7-6, 7-5 during the quarterfinals while Michael Youzhny finally sent Tipsarevic packing 6-3, 6-4. That left a semifinal match between Melzer and Youzhny which the Russian won, sending him into the finals.
In the meantime, the volatile Djokovic was making his way through the draw but not by playing his best and not in the best humor. His second round match with Victor Troicki saw the Serb losing the first set 3-6 but coming back to win the second 6-4 and the third 6-2.
During the quarterfinals, Djokovic was up against the ropes as Ljubicic was playing the match of his life. The Croat won the first set 6-2 and was up a break in the second set when the Serb stormed back and evened the match winning 6-4. With his power fully restored, Djokovic went on to win in three sets taking the final set at love.
Facing Baghdatis in the semifinals, Djokovic followed his established pattern of losing the opening set—which he did against Cypriot 6-7. Then with a break of serve, the Serb took the second set 6-3, followed by 6-4 in the final set.
Grimacing and groaning and stretching his arms to the heavens in gestures of frustration, Djokovic frequently displayed a full array of emotions on the court at Dubai. Often he glared at his box, letting his coaches know just how dissatisfied he was with either the level of his play or the level of their coaching. It was hard to tell.
The Serb held nothing back, often roaring his displeasure. The commentators on the Tennis Channel remained uncertain as to whether the antics Djokovic displayed were the best course of action for a man who wanted to keep his opposition guessing.
Let’s face it—anytime you are the No. 2 seed and you come up against Guillermo Garcia-Lopez, Troicki, Ljubicic, Baghdatis and then Youzhny in the final, you are expected to win.
With all but the final in the bag, you have to wonder at the Serb’s behavior. Was it just to show the world that he should be playing better? We could all see that and judge for ourselves. Was it to show the opposition that their play was driving him crazy? I think they figured that out in the first set.
The final in Dubai was rained out Saturday evening with Djokovic firmly in command having taken the first set 7-5 and sitting with a 2-0 lead in the second. It would be hard to imagine Djokovic losing with this lead even though Youzhny defeated the Serb two weeks ago in Rotterdam.
When play resumed on Sunday, the Russian Youzhny fought his way back into the match and took the second set 7-5, playing outstanding tennis. But the reigning champion regained his edge, closing the match out with a score of 6-3 in the final set.
The repeat makes Djokovic unique. No man other than Roger Federer has managed to win back-to-back finals in Dubai. Federer won this tournament 2003-2007. The Swiss has not played the last two years because of illness or injury.
The win gives Djokovic his first ATP singles title of the 2010 season and marks his 17th overall title. It should also give the Serb an additional shot of confidence as he heads to Indian Wells and Miami in the U.S.
No doubt about it, this year will see the rankings race ebb and flow as Djokovic, Nadal and Murray battle it out for the No. 2 spot. Currently, the three of them remain within that 1,000 point range. Let us not forget, too, that Federer has a huge chunk of points to defend starting in May—so his perch at the top is also vulnerable.
2010 promises a boat-load of excitement as the top men thrust and parry for that No. 1 spot. Indian Wells starts in a week...and dare I say it...coverage in the U.S. by Fox Sports...sigh...