Top Storylines at the 2015 ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Joe Kennard@@JoeKennardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2015

Top Storylines at the 2015 ATP Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    Dubai is arguably the most prestigious 500 series event on the ATP World Tour. It's the unofficial Grand Slam of the Middle East and a key platform for players to build momentum as spring approaches.

    This year, there will be plenty of intriguing plots to follow as the top men in the world battle through intense heat and sandstorms in the Arab desert.

    Novak Djokovic, fresh off his fifth Australian Open crown, will look to build on his momentum and cement his status as the No. 1 player in the world with another title.

    Standing in his way will be Roger Federer, who's seeking to repeat as champion and win his record seventh title at the tournament.

    Other notable attendees to the party include Andy Murray and Tomas Berdych, and both players have added incentive to perform well and shake off recent losses. 

    Here is a more in-depth look at these and other storylines emerging in Dubai. With the Indian Wells-Miami double on the horizon and precious rankings points up for grabs, there's a lot on the line this week.

Which Dark Horse Contender Will Emerge?

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    Scott Barbour/Getty Images

    Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic have combined to win 10 of the last 12 Dubai titles, including every one since 2009. Will anyone be able to break their stranglehold this year? It will be tough, but there are a few players who could make some noise.

    Borna Coric, pictured, received a lucky loser spot in the draw after Philipp Kohlschreiber withdrew because of a cold. Coric, an 18-year-old prospect on the rise, landed in a soft spot of the draw and plays Malek Jaziri in his first match. This could be a big chance for Coric to pick up some momentum-building wins.

    In the top half of the draw, 2004 and 2008 runner-up Feliciano Lopez and his smooth lefty serves could pose a tricky challenge for Djokovic in the quarterfinals. 

    Federer's section is loaded with potential obstacles, including David Goffin, Roberto Bautista Agut and Fernando Verdasco. The Swiss maestro will have plenty of work to do just to reach another final.

    Keep an eye on Dominic Thiem, the 21-year-old Austrian. He'll square off with Bautista Agut in the first round for the right to play Richard Gasquet. That's a daunting challenge, but Thiem has enough talent to crash the stage.

Will the Third Time Be the Charm for Tomas Berdych?

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    The player most primed to spoil the Novak Djokovic-Roger Federer hierarchy in Dubai? It could be Tomas Berdych.

    A runner-up the last two years at the tournament, Berdych's flat, powerful game adapts well to the Dubai courts. He lost to Djokovic in straight sets in the 2013 final but nearly turned the corner last year, pushing Federer to three tense sets before bowing out. 

    What should encourage Berdych is his recent form. Already in 2015, the Czech has compiled a 13-3 record, with finals appearances in Doha and Rotterdam, as well as a semifinal run at the Australian Open. His signature moment was a commanding straight-sets win over Rafael Nadal in Melbourne.

    Though he lost in Doha to David Ferrer and to Stan Wawrinka in Rotterdam, the fact that Berdych has made two finals shows how consistent he's been to start the 2015 season. But if he wants to win his first title of the season in Dubai, he'll likely have to go through Djokovic, who's in his half of the draw.

    Berdych will need all of the momentum he's built this year to carry him through that match and give himself another opportunity to hoist the champion's trophy. 

Is Andy Murray Ready to Shake off Recent Losses?

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    Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

    No player has more to gain this week than Andy Murray.

    A finalist in 2012, the Scot desperately needs to find some good fortune in the Dubai desert to wash away his recent losses. Though Murray made a strong run to the Australian Open final and passed Rafael Nadal this week for No. 3 in the world rankings, his season has been defined by two brutal performances.

    Against Djokovic in Melbourne, the Scot let an early third-set lead slip away and was demolished during the fourth in a 6-7 (5), 7-6 (4) 3-6, 0-6 championship-match defeat. For the fourth time, he fell short in a final Down Under.

    The hangover from that loss carried over to Rotterdam two weeks ago, where a sloppy Murray was crushed in the quarterfinals 4-6, 2-6 by Gilles Simon. It's tough to call that type of result uncharacteristic for him anymore, because they've started to accumulate over the last few months. Simply put, Murray needs to show up more often in big matches if he wants to be considered a top contender again.

    Since his win at Wimbledon in 2013, Murray has won only one 500 series tournament—Valencia last October. During that span, he's come up empty at every Grand Slam and Masters 1000 event he's played. Winning Dubai this week would be a start to finally taking home marquee hardware again.

Can Roger Federer Win His Seventh Title?

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    Kamran Jebreili/Associated Press

    A month has passed since Roger Federer's shocking loss to Andreas Seppi in the third round of the Australian Open. Luckily for the Swiss, he's returning to one of his favorite stopping points in the season.

    Federer has won Dubai six times (2003-05, 2007, 2012, 2014) and made two other finals (2006, 2011). The city is home for him in more ways than one. Federer owns an apartment there, where he trains during the year. He's used to the conditions and is more than comfortable while other plays wilt in the heat. 

    He'll need to draw upon that conditioning this week, and already he's off to a flying start, cruising past Mikhail Youzhny 6-3, 6-1 in his opening match. But to make his ninth final in Dubai, Federer will likely have to face off against Andy Murray in a potential blockbuster semifinal.

    Last year, Federer used vintage performances to take out Novak Djokovic and Tomas Berdych on his way to the title. Those wins propelled him toward a resurgent season last year. To cleanse himself of the Seppi loss and get back on track, he could use another strong run in Dubai. With the added weight of defending 500 rankings points, this week is crucial for Federer.

Who Can Stop Novak Djokovic?

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    Andy Brownbill/Associated Press

    It's good to be Novak Djokovic right now. Newly married and celebrating the recent birth of his first child, he's also the king of the tennis world after winning his fifth Australian Open last month.

    The scary part is he didn't even play his most consistent tennis Down Under, and he still took home the title.

    He'll look to continue his victory march in Dubai this week, a place where he's already triumphed four times (2009-11, 2013). As if he needed any extra help, Djokovic was handed a cushy draw and won't have to play another seeded player until the quarterfinals at the earliest, when he'd potentially face Feliciano Lopez.

    With almost a month off since he left Rod Laver Arena as a champion, Djokovic should be well rested to make a push this week. While he could play Tomas Berdych in the semifinals, the Serbian should cruise to another final, where he'd likely meet Roger Federer or Andy Murray.

    Confidence is a potent drug on the tennis court, and Djokovic is overflowing with it. He's unquestionably the top player in the world and at the peak of his powers. It will be tough for any player to halt a fifth Djokovic parade in the desert.

    All statistics courtesy of ATPWorldTour.com unless otherwise noted.

    Joe Kennard is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. 

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