Two weeks of world-class tennis have wrapped up in Dubai with Roberto Bautista Agut reigning supreme over Lucas Pouille in the men’s final on Saturday.
For a tournament that was missing its usual stars, it still managed to deliver quality and excitement.
From an Arab surprise run to a teenage breakthrough to the desert rain that played mind tricks on the players, there was no shortage of action at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Here are five things learned from the 26th edition of the ATP tournament.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
Making his sixth consecutive main draw appearance in Dubai, the 34-year-old Malek Jaziri stole home hearts by upsetting world No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov in his opening round to claim the first top-10 victory of his career, then marched to the semi-finals to become the first Arab to make it that far at the tournament since Younes El Aynaoui in 2002.
It was Jaziri’s first ATP 500 semi-final and it catapulted the Tunisian 33 spots up the rankings to get back to 84 in the world.
Jaziri is a late bloomer who hit his career-high ranking of 47 last year, aged 33. On a tour that has a 36-year-old Roger Federer winning Slams and getting to No. 1, and a 33-year-old Gilles Muller capturing a maiden ATP title last year, it really is never too late to hit new heights in the world of tennis. Jaziri, who was 0-10 against top-10 opposition prior to his win over Dimitrov, is yet another example of that.
THREE CHEERS FOR THE CROWD
Roger Federer didn’t come, only two from the top-10 showed up and one of them lost in the first round and it rained… but guess what? It didn’t matter in the end. The last few days of the tournament witnessed great crowds that even prompted the umpire in the final to commend them on their Mexican wave.
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, that was amazing, players are ready!” is not something you hear every day from a match official.
Tunisian fans turned up in scores to support Jaziri but the stadium was also buzzing during the final between Bautista Agut and Pouille.
Dubai loves its tennis. And while there’s no debating the unmatchable popularity of Federer, this week showed us that even if the stars aren’t in town, there is genuine passion for the sport and the event.
MIXED VIEWS ON DAVIS CUP OVERHAUL
The ITF’s proposal to completely revamp the Davis Cup in partnership with a company headed by footballer Gerard Pique was of course a hot topic in the Dubai press centre this past week and it’s clear players are not united in their views on the matter.
Bautista Agut said he welcomes the idea of a big money investment in tennis while Pouille described the proposal as a “death sentence” to the Davis Cup. The two Dubai finalists aren’t the only people on opposite ends of this debate. It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out when the plan is voted on at the ITF’s Annual General Meeting in August.
TSITSIPAS LOVES THE MIDDLE EAST
I’m not just guessing that because he made the quarter-finals in both Doha and Dubai this season. He actually told me so.
The 19-year-old Greek wildcard Stefanos Tsitsipas reached his first ATP 500 quarter-final in the Emirates, taking out Mikhail Kukushkin and Philipp Kohlschreiber before losing to Jaziri. He hits a new career-high ranking of 71 on Monday. Keep an eye out for this Next Gen star this season.
Pouille played one match in January, and he lost it. It was his fifth consecutive Australian Open first round defeat. He is 0-5 in Melbourne. He then got injured and didn’t play Davis Cup. Instead of wallowing, he decided to snap out of it.
The Frenchman gave himself a pep talk, acknowledged he was putting needless pressure on his shoulders and tried to get rid of it. The result was reaching three finals in four weeks and winning one of them. He was outplayed by Bautista Agut in the final but can still take lots of confidence from his past month.
Good week in Dubai even if it was not my best match today, full credit to Roberto and good luck for the rest of the season. 👏 Thanks to @ddftennis for the great organization and servicing, sincerely one of the very best tournament in the world. It’s been a good month for me with a title and two finals, I will do my best to keep this momentum going. Thanks for all your nice messages. 🙏 Next Indian Wells 🇺🇸✈️🌴🎾☀️💪 #TeamPouille #Dubai #ComeOn #StepByStep
He may have lost his second final in seven days but Lucas Pouille insists he walks away with lots of positives from his week in Dubai.
The Frenchman, who lost to Karen Khachanov in the Marseille title match last Sunday, was hoping to secure a spot in the top-10 for the first time in his career but fell short by just one victory as he fell to Roberto Bautista Agut in Saturday’s final at the Aviation Club.
Appearing in his third final in four weeks, Pouille played 14 matches since the start of February and looked sluggish against an overpowering Bautista Agut.
But the 24-year-old refused to blame fatigue for his defeat against the Spaniard, and gave him full credit after the match.
“I think the only thing is that Roberto was too good today. He played some great tennis this week so a big congratulations to him and his team, you guys are doing some great work and I wish you all the best for this year,” Pouille said on court during the trophy ceremony.
The Dubai resident will rise to a career-high No. 12 on Monday, and is hoping to take his good form into Indian Wells and Miami, where he has great opportunity to pick up points having lost early in both last year.
“I tried very hard until the end. He was, yeah, just better than me today. Now I need some rest, need to travel to the States. It’s a long travel, long jet-lag with 12 hours. I really need to try to be ready for Indian Wells,” said Pouille, whose record in finals now is 5-4.
Looking back at his week in the Emirates, he added: “It would have been better with a victory, so that’s why it’s not fantastic.
“No, it was a good week. Very positive things, a lot of positive things. We’ll see how it goes for the few coming weeks.
“Anyway, I’m very happy with the way I played, with the way I managed the transition between Marseille and here because it was really close. I don’t know, I didn’t really know how to deal with it. But I’m very happy with the way I did. Now I need to look forward.”
Pouille is now No. 9 in the ATP Race to London and he admits making it to the season finale – where only the year’s top-eight compete – is a main goal for him in 2018.
His list of objectives for the season is not a modest one.
“Reaching top 10, trying to be in London at the end of the season. That’s definitely one of my goals. Winning as many titles as possible, go as far as possible in the Grand Slams especially,” said Pouille, who owns five ATP titles and has reached two quarter-finals at the Slams so far.
The No. 3 seed claimed his first ATP 500 crown and an eighth title overall with a convincing 6-3, 6-4 win against Pouille, denying the Frenchman the chance to clinch a maiden berth in the world’s top-10.
The last Spanish player to win in Dubai was Rafael Nadal in 2006.
A fatigued-looking Pouille, who was one win away from entering that elite ranking bracket after reaching three finals in four weeks, was no match for the ever-solid Bautista Agut across the 81-minute encounter.
“This tournament is very special, it’s going to be in my head for the rest of my life. I’m so happy I won a 500 event. I beat Lucas, he’s a really good player, he has a great future ahead and he’s been playing unbelievable tennis this month,” said Bautista Agut on court following his victory.
Both players entered the contest seeking a second trophy of the season with Bautista Agut looking to add to his Auckland success in January and Pouille bidding for a trophy to go with his triumph in Montpellier last month.
But while Pouille had momentum on his side, having won 11 of his previous 13 matches, Bautista Agut came to Dubai carrying a three-match losing streak before turning things around in the Emirates.
“I was struggling a little bit before coming here. I had fever one week. I couldn’t come to Montpellier. I had a wildcard in Marseille. I was starting to play better. I lost in the first round. Was a tough moment for me because I was feeling good on the court. I was working well. I was doing everything right, and sometimes the results don’t come. You just have to stay there,” explained Bautista Agut, who will rise to No. 16 in the world on Monday, three positions off his career-high ranking.
Heading into the final, Pouille had fired a tournament-leading 44 aces and the Frenchman brought more of the same early on as he struck two in his opening service game.
But Bautista Agut also had a strong start, winning 8/8 points on his own serve on his way to 2-1 lead.
An error-strewn fourth game saw Pouille save three break points before double-faulting to fall behind 1-3.
It was the Spaniard’s turn to stave off a break point in game five and he did it with style, out-rallying Pouille before unleashing a down-the-line backhand winner.
Pouille avoided going down a double-break and held for 2-4 but Bautista Agut maintained his advantage and secured the opening set with a service winner to place on hand on the dhow boat trophy.
The No. 2 seed found some energy reserves in the second set and almost broke in the fourth game when a Bautista Agut shot was called out. But the Spaniard challenged the call and his ball had just clipped the line. It got Bautista Agut out of trouble for a brief moment but he sent another backhand long giving Pouille his first break of the match for 3-1.
The Dubai-resident’s lead did not last though as Bautista Agut ‘vamosed’ his way to a break-back and soon drew level at 3-all.
The 29-year-old produced a sensational backhand passing shot to get his hands on triple-break point and he converted on a netted forehand from Pouille to put himself in the position to serve for the title.
Bautista Agut got his first match point with a stellar point, sending Pouille left and right along the baseline before finding the winner. And he wrapped up the win moments later, picking up the biggest title of his career so far.
“I was a bit nervous to close the match but I’ve been working a lot this month and I think I was prepared to manage all the emotions and I did very well in the last game,” said Bautista Agut on court after the win.