The first three months of the tennis season pose some of its biggest challenges.
First, there is the sheer quantity of tournaments. From the second day of January to the last day of March, the tour squeezes in 16 hard court venues—five of them indoors.
Then there’s the reverse psychology factor. With time for just a couple of 250 events at the opening of the year—though most men play only one—the tour is suddenly plunged into the rigors of its first Major. Yet there is not a Masters in sight until the final fortnight of March when there are two on the trot.
And as if to mess with their heads and their games, the players face two contrasting paths before the paint has barely dried on the roll of honor for the Australian Open.
Should they take a break from the arduous hard courts and head for the clay of South American—proffered like an apple in the Garden of Eden? Or should they persevere with the surface that draws them down the weeks to the prestige and prizes of Indian Wells and Miami?
The temptations of the hard-court road in all their variety are certainly worth the effort. The two concluding Masters are the richest in the calendar, each offering prize money worth more than $3.6 million.
Along that same road there are also three 500 events in three consecutive weeks, the most of any season in the year: Rotterdam, Memphis and Dubai.
However the last of the three is the only one to offer comparable outdoor conditions to the North American Masters. It also happens to be the richest of all the 500s.
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.
Dry and warm, luxurious and glamorous, it has all the advantages. So while some of the players spread their favors between the competing attractions of Acapulco and Florida, it is Dubai that has invariably drawn the biggest names.
Since 2003, Roger Federer has won the title 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 more to a knee injury, and lost world No. 5 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 Dubai’s hot desert.
For the third year in a row, Nadal will not feature in the Dubai draw and, for the second year in succession, he will miss the entire hard swing from the Australian Open until Indian Wells.
Last year, he was sidelined with a knee injury, but the rest did him no harm at all: Nadal’s hard court prowess took him to the semis of both Indian Wells and Miami. He then reeled off 22 straight wins to make a clean sweep of the clay swing, and he still had enough petrol in the tank for Wimbledon.
The world No. 1 has been steadily working his way to fitness after his Melbourne quarterfinal exit with a thigh tear, and he has announced that he will be ready to play in the Davis Cup at the end of the month.
A week later, he is scheduled to play in the fund-raiser, Clash of the Champions, in Oregon with Federer, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova. Then it’s off to Indian Wells before traveling back south for a first visit to Colombia, where he plays an exhibition with Djokovic in Bogota.
Nadal doesn’t need to win a match before May to keep his No. 1 ranking, and can only then be overtaken should Federer or Djokovic win every one of theirs.
But with his enforced rest during February and a well-balanced flow of events through to Wimbledon, there seems, in practice, very little chance of anyone coming close to him before the grass gives way to the hard courts once more.
The return of Murray after his defeat in Australia was keenly anticipated, but his decision to enter Rotterdam was all the more intriguing because he had talked of needing a break to prepare for the March Masters.
Murray won in the Netherlands in 2009, and that year went on to reach the finals of both Indian Wells and Miami, winning the latter. But this time his lack of preparation showed in a first round loss to Marcos Baghdatis.
Despite a tired performance and a sore left wrist, he continued to play doubles with his brother and reached the semi-finals, but that decision may now look questionable since he has withdrawn from Dubai, quoting that sore wrist.
Murray loves the North American Masters and is aiming to improve on his quarterfinal finish in Indian Wells. He will be particularly keen to perform well in his second home of Miami, where he made a shock straight-sets exit in his first match last year. And as he has few points to defend in Dubai, the break will allow him to spend more time in his Florida training camp.
Dubai’s loss could well prove to be Miami’s gain.
Rotterdam champion Robin Soderling elected, as last year, to stay in Europe rather than head to Dubai. It has proved to be a good decision, and his winning ways of 2011 continued unabated with his third title of the year in Marseille.
The Swede has a 17-1 win-loss record so far this year, his other titles coming in Brisbane and Rotterdam. His only defeat has been in five sets in the fourth round of the Australian Open.
Soderling now heads home for the Davis Cup, and takes with him the tone of a man confident in the effectiveness of his aggressive play.
He talked of taking his game to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the Netherlands, and did so again in Marseille, where he lost his only set in the tournament in a tie-break to Marin Cilic: “I told myself I needed to be on top of things a little bit more and be more aggressive and it really worked.”
Soderling went on to reach the semis at both Indian Wells and Miami after the same schedule last year. Why disrupt a winning pattern?
Also missing from Dubai is Andy Roddick who, though he was the title-holder in 2009, turned his back on the U.A.E. and has not returned since.
For the third year in a row, his Masters groundwork has focused on the indoor hard courts of the Memphis 500, and he is slated to get some outdoor preparation in Delray Beach next week.
However, he was not looking 100 percent fit in what turned into a gruelling three-set Memphis final, and he also has the Davis Cup before the American Masters. It will interesting to see if he opts out of Delray Beach to take a short break instead.
Roddick had a superb run to the finals of Indian Wells last year, followed by the title in Miami, and with his 30th title from 50 finals in the bag this weekend, he must be feeling confident that he can take on the best once again this year.
Of the other top-10 players, 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.
Meanwhile, Juan Martin 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 he too heads to the outdoor heat of Delray Beach.
Even the headline-grabbing newcomer of 2011 is missing from Dubai, though the seeds there may be mighty relieved that he is.
Young Canadian Milos Raonic, who continued his assault on the rankings from 156 at the end of 2010 to inside the top 40 this week, followed a first title in San Jose with a final finish in Memphis, breaking the tournament record for aces.
His huge serve has left opponents shaking their heads in disbelief, while the Canadian’s composure has left commentators equally dumbfounded. These two weapons alone will be worrying more than just a confused Fernando Verdasco who, in defeat, claimed to see only the serve and little else.
There is certainly more to come from a young man who looks as though he still has growing to do. He already has a mighty forehand and backhand. Add in some more variety off the ground and from the net, and he is a truly scary prospect, even on the clay of Acapulco, where he is now headed.
So Dubai is having to work hard to keep its place in the spotlight, despite having 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 different reasons: Federer and Djokovic.
Dubai has always been a happy stomping ground for top seed 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 in attracting a Federer ‘home’ crowd, and his return after a three-year absence will be celebrated.
The No. 2 seed Djokovic 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.
Federer and Djokovic have played each other 20 times already, only two short of the match-ups between Federer and Nadal. But the rivalry seems to notching up ever-greater intensity: They have met six times in the last six months and have exchanged the No. 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 gripping 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 a 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 for 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 No. 7 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.
No. 11 Mikhail Youzhny produced some stunning tennis in narrowly losing his quarterfinal against Soderling in Rotterdam, and reached the semis in Marseille this week.
This will be his 10th appearance in the desert where he was runner-up in 2007 and 2010. He has, though, drawn the same short straw in the first round that Federer did in the second in Melbourne: Gilles Simon.
No. 17 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 Marcos 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 come as no surprise to anyone to see a 21st face-off between the two former champions come Dubai’s final Sunday.
Whether Federer wreaks revenge over Djokovic for Melbourne with a 14th win, or Djokovic continues to challenge for the No. 1 ranking in the world by taking his eighth win in their career, Dubai will not mind.
It will be the perfect aperitif to the spring’s hard-court climax come March.