The 26th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships commenced on Monday with first round action staged across the first two days.
This week, there are two ATP 500 hard-court events taking place – Dubai and Acapulco – with world No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov headlining the field in the Emirates and Rafael Nadal top dog in Mexico.
Here are the main talking points to discuss in Dubai this week…
It’s no secret that Dubai has attracted fewer marquee players this year compared to past seasons with Dimitrov being the only top-10 star in the field and together with Lucas Pouille, they are the sole top-20 players here.
For a tournament that has been dominated by the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for much of the last decade, this is obviously a surprising draw.
There are a few contributing factors. Federer is 36 and is understandably being more selective with his schedule, and it seems he also committed to attend the Laureus Awards in Monaco on Tuesday.
Nadal was lured by Acapulco since last year, while Djokovic and Murray are both injured.
The Acapulco draw has six of the world’s top-10 and it appears organisers have pulled out all the stops to celebrate the tournament’s 25-year anniversary this week.
The event’s switch from clay to hard-courts in 2014 is now paying dividends, and as it strengthened its position as a direct competition for Dubai, more players are heading west than east for this particular week in the calendar.
Add to that the fact that Acapulco is a short plane ride away from Palm Springs where all the players next compete at Indian Wells and it all adds up. They get to be in the same time zone for a longer period of time, while enjoying the beach in Mexico.
That’s not to say that Dubai won’t be getting strong fields in the future. Players like to change up their schedules from time to time and when all the injured stars are back to full strength, they’re bound to come back to the Aviation Club. Something also tells me Federer won’t retire without at least making one last appearance at his second home.
Karen Khachanov and Pouille arrive to Dubai on Monday night after contesting the final in Marseille on Sunday. Khachanov triumphed over the Frenchman to claim a second career ATP title and first since Chengdu 2016. Both play their first rounds on Tuesday and will have to make quick adjustments, going from indoors to outdoors and getting used to brand new conditions. The abrupt switch, including a three-hour time difference, can make them easy prey for their opponents with Khachanov facing Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin and Pouille taking on former top-10 player, Latvian qualifier Ernests Gulbis.
SPANISH (MINI) SLUMP
No. 3 seed Roberto Bautista Agut won the Auckland title, defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the final, in the second week of January and hasn’t won a match since. He came to Dubai on a three-match losing streak but has a style suited to these courts, where he made the quarter-finals in 2016.
The world No. 23 finally stopped the bleeding on Monday as he defeated Florian Mayer 6-3, 6-4 to reach the second round. Can he redeem his recent form by going all the way in Dubai this week?
There are six Frenchmen in the main draw, which according to the ATP is a tournament high. Pouille, Richard Gasquet, Benoit Paire, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and qualifiers Gleb Sakharov and Quentin Halys. The last Frenchman to win the Dubai title was Fabrico Santoro in 2002. Santoro is here in the Emirates, coaching Gasquet. Will the student emulate his teacher?
YOUNG GUNS ON THE RISE
Greek world No. 82 Stefanos Tsitsipas is the youngest in the draw, aged 19. The Next Gen star, who was handed a wildcard, claimed just his second main draw match win at an ATP 500-level or higher event on Monday by overcoming Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3. Tsitsipas made the quarter-finals in Doha (ATP 250 event) as a qualifier at the start of the year and reached the semis in Antwerp, also as a qualifier, end of last season.
Keep an eye out as well for 21-year-olds Borna Coric, who opens against Gasquet, and Khachanov.
DIMITROV AND HIS TOP BILLING
As the only top-10 player in the draw, it goes without saying that Dimitrov is considered the favourite for the title. Since he won the ATP Finals last November – his biggest trophy to date – Dimitrov has been fairly consistent, amassing a 10-3 win-loss record in 2018 that included semis in Brisbane, quarters in the Australian Open and a runner-up showing in Rotterdam. He is recovering from a cold and had a shoulder injury in Melbourne that forced him out of Sofia earlier this month. If he’s healthy, Dubai could be his first title triumph of the season.
Since he didn’t play a tournament this time last year, the Bulgarian stands to gain a full 500 points if he wins the trophy this week, which could see him return to the No. 3 spot.
Former Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships ball kid Alexei Popyrin came agonisingly close to fulfilling a lifelong dream of competing in the main draw of the ATP event at the Aviation Club but faltered in the final round of qualifying on Sunday.
On a day where rain interrupted play on the courts in Garhoud, the Australian teenager, who lived in the Emirates between 2009 and 2011 and was a ball boy during the 2009 Dubai tournament, squandered six break points in the opening set and blew a 5-3 lead in the tiebreak to lose 7-6 (5), 6-4 to French world No. 107 Quentin Halys.
The Sydney-born Popyrin, who currently lives in Marbella, won the French Open junior title last year. The 18-year-old is ranked No. 477 in the world and is considered a bright young prospect on the tour.
“It was a tough match but I thought I was in control mostly in the first set. I had six break points in the first set that I couldn’t convert. I’m not very happy with the way the match went but happy with the way I fought, the way I played,” said Popyrin after his match on Sunday.
“I think if the first set went my way it could’ve been a completely different story. Just have to take my chances next time.
“I feel like I can compete with these guys. I don’t feel like it’s a big deal for my game but it’s just mentally, I have to stay in the match focused a bit more. But that all comes with experience.”
Popyrin was given a wildcard into the qualifying rounds in Dubai both last year and this week. Making the transition from ball kid to actually playing at the ATP 500 event has been a highlight for him but he hopes to make it into the main tournament next time around.
“It felt amazing but I’m just disappointed I didn’t get the ‘W’ to play in the main draw. I was so close to making it. Next year maybe,” he said.
“I just bounce back. I do my stuff. Talk with my coach about the match, with my parents. Learn, the most important thing for me is to learn from my mistakes to keep going in my game, mentally keep going. I feel 100 per cent at home when I play in these big tournaments. It just comes with experience I think and age.”
Meanwhile, former top-10 player Ernests Gulbis booked himself a spot in the main draw by defeat Italian Stefano Travaglia 6-3, 6-2. He takes on No. 2 seed Lucas Pouille in the main draw.
MONDAY’S ORDER OF PLAY
Court 1 – 14:00 start
Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) v Mikhail Kukushkin (KAZ)
Robin Haase (NED) v Quentin Halys (FRA)
Denis Istomin (UZB)/Daniel Nestor (CAN) v Richard Gasquet (FRA)/Pierre-Hugues Herbert (FRA)
Henri Kontinen (FIN x1)/John Peers (AUS x1) v Damir Dzumhur (BIH)/Filip Krajinovic (SRB)
Malek Jaziri has once again drawn a top seed in his opening round in Dubai and at this point, the Tunisian says he has got used to it.
The former top-50 player, now down to 116 in the world, faces No. 1 seed Grigor Dimitrov in his first round in Dubai on Tuesday.
Jaziri drew top seed – the then world No. 1 – Andy Murray in his opener last year in the Emirates and also took on a top-ranked Novak Djokovic in the second round in 2016 and a second-ranked Roger Federer in the 2013 first round.
“My reaction was normal because I’m used to it,” Jaziri told Sport360 when asked about his reaction to the draw this week.
“Most of my matches in Dubai have been against a world No. 1 or a top player in front of a full house stadium. It’s something great but at the same time it’s sometimes nerve-wracking. But hopefully this year I can cause a surprise and win this match. I’m optimistic.”
Jaziri’s best result in Dubai came in 2014 when he reached the quarter-finals before falling to Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber.
The 34-year-old has dropped out of the top-100 for the first time in two years and is looking to return in order to secure his place in Grand Slam main draws throughout the season.
“I’m improving my tennis. I feel like I have more shots in my arsenal, I’ve improved my backhand, and my forehand as well. And hopefully the results will follow,” explained the Tunisian.
“There is progress in my tennis and maybe the results aren’t showing it, not as I expected. But everything takes time, especially when you change things in your game, it takes time to see it reflected in your results. I’m working hard, I’m travelling with my coach (Christophe Freyss) and my fitness coach.
“I’m working hard on my physical fitness so I can be fitter for my matches, and also to extend my career. It’s important as well to make sure my recovery is better and quicker.”
This is Jaziri’s second year working with Freyss, a Frenchman who worked with Roger Federer when he was young.
Jaziri admits his slip in the rankings has been tough to handle but he is hopeful he can rebound.
He is a father to a young boy, Malek Jr., and says his son has been a motivating factor on the court.
“He’s already grabbing my tennis racquets and calls out for me. He is a source of motivation for me,” said Jaziri of his 21-month-old son.
“He watches me play and of course doesn’t understand what’s going on but he sees me running around and he’s happy. I hope to keep being a source of happiness for him.”