Dubai did at least open the week with one piece of good news. The richest 500 in the calendar had won the ATP 500 award for the seventh time in eight years: the third year in a row.
That may have gone some way to healing the wounds opened by the absence of two of its biggest names, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray. It may also have reduced the stress of seeing world No. 4 Robin Soderling steal the headlines in Marseille with his third title in four events and watching Andy Roddick bring the house down in Memphis with his 30th career title.
It will not, however, have done much to counter the swath of disappointments that hit Dubai in its opening round.
The popular Cypriot, Marcos Baghdatis, playing in what promised to be an attractive opener against the biggest riser of 2010, Andrey Golubev, retired after just four games with the flu.
Another close match-up between No. 41 Feliciano Lopez and No. 42 Yen-Hsun Lu ended prematurely when the Taipei man also retired ill after losing five games in a row.
The glorious single-handed backhand of Ivan Ljubicic was killed off in the first game of the second set by a calf injury, and what promised to be the highlight of opening Monday between the shot-making flair of Richard Gasquet and the Federer-lite teenager Grigor Dimitrov, turned into an error-ridden letdown of just one hour.
As if to rain on Dubai’s parade, it did just that: It rained in the desert.
What a relief, then, that the big boys, the money-makers, the top two seeds with the best form of the last five months, did their bit for Dubai’s reputation.
Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, both former Dubai champions, were making their first appearances since the Australian Open, which also marked the last time they played one another.
Most spectators—in Dubai and elsewhere—hope for a 21st meeting between them come Sunday, but first Federer faced the Indian No. 1, Somdev Devvarman, and the match certainly provided a cauldron of an atmosphere.
Federer enjoys huge support in his second home of Dubai and was a sight for sore eyes after missing the last two years with injury and falling in the first round in 2008 while recovering from glandular fever.
However, Devvarman had the raucous and enthusiastic backing of many in a full stadium swollen by a local Indian workforce that has helped to build Dubai into an architectural wonder.
It did not help Devvarman that he claims Federer as his hero. Nor did it help him that Federer looked and played with the relaxed confidence of someone rested, fit and eager.
The Swiss forehand was super-sharp and his footwork light and quick. He worked the backhand like the bow of a violin, sweeping over the top of the ball for down-the-line winners and skimming under the ball in cross-court sliced defence.
Devvarman’s style of play—clean, deep shots down both wings and solid defence in the longer rallies—provided the perfect foil. It gave Federer the chance to work up his array of shots all the way to a 6-3 first set in which he lost only five points on serve.
The Indian was not fazed, though, and continued to play solid, attacking tennis—and it nearly paid off in Federer’s second service game.
But two break chances went begging as Devvarman played a handful of unforced errors at the crucial moment.
The hold of serve seemed to give Federer an adrenalin rush that propelled him to the net on the Indian’s serve to break immediately.
And that was it: Federer finished off the match 6-3.
Djokovic, on paper, had the harder test in his first round against the tall left-hander, Michael Llodra, ranked No. 27 and the winner of their last match at the Paris Masters.
The Serb is going for his third Dubai title in a row, and looked every inch the defending champion. It took him barely an hour to race through the serve-and-volley tactics of Llodra who simply couldn’t get enough pace off the Dubai court to cut off Djokovic's accurate passing shots. The Serb broke quickly in both sets to take the match 6-3, 6-3.
It was, though, a fun encounter and, just as Federer had, the Serb got the kind of warm-up he would have wished for.
Who will win the Dubai 500?
Other good signs for the tournament—at least in these early stages—were the performances of No. 3 seed Tomas Berdych, a winner in two easy sets, and of Nikolay Davydenko, who gave Guillermo Garcia-Lopez just two games in their 57 minutes on court.
Davydenko has had a tawdry time of it since pulling out of this very tournament last year with what became a long-term wrist injury. He is now trying to avoid slipping out of the top 40, but faces a mountain of a task against Berdych in the next round.
The unseeded Frenchman Gilles Simon overturned a 0-7 losing record against fourth seed and two-time former finalist Mikhail Youzhny to win 6-3, 7-5.
It’s a good sign for the man fighting back up the rankings after knee injury last season. He has a nice run through his segment of the draw to a possible semi-final repeat of his Australian Open meeting with Federer.
Simon almost upset the Swiss there, and he has beaten him in both their previous best-of-three matches.
This could make this half of the draw very interesting indeed.