The only man to beat Novak Djokovic at a Grand Slam last year, Stan Wawrinka, will be competing in Dubai this week, for the first time since 2008, and is considered the world No.1’s biggest challenger for the title in the UAE.
The Djokovic-Wawrinka rivalry has evolved over the past few years and their epic major battles have stood out as big highlights each season.
Roger Federer – a record seven-time winner in Dubai and the current title holder – is absent from the draw this week as he recovers from knee surgery, but the tournament remains in great hands as a potential Wawrinka-Djokovic final is already on many people’s minds.
Since January 2013, Djokovic and Wawrinka have faced off five times at the majors and four of those clashes have gone to five sets.
While the Serb still holds a strong 19-4 head-to-head record against Wawrinka, Djokovic has suffered two Grand Slam losses to him recently – in the 2014 Australian Open quarter-finals and the 2015 Roland Garros final.
The pair have a good relationship off court, they often practice together ahead of major tournaments and have lots of respect for each other. You get the sense that that respect is reflected in how closely their major matches are contested against one another but Wawrinka doesn’t think that is the reason why he manages to trouble Djokovic.
“I think we have tough matches in Grand Slams because in the other tournaments he’s beating me quite easily many times. But in Grand Slams it’s more about the way I’m playing, the way my game is and the way I find solutions against him,” Wawrinka had told Sport360 in an interview a few weeks ago.
Djokovic was like a tsunami last year, sweeping all opposition ahead of him as he made the final of every tournament he played in – except in the first week of the season in Doha – picking up 11 titles in 11 months.
This season, he has picked up where he left off, winning trophies in Doha and the Australian Open, where he delivered heavy blows to his biggest rivals, Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal.
He has taken his slam record to 11 titles and is now just three behind Nadal and six behind Federer.
“He is dominating tennis for sure,” the fourth-ranked Wawrinka said of Djokovic in Dubai on Sunday.
“He’s been playing at a different level so far from the rest of the players, winning all the big titles almost, he’s there, he’s No.1 by far, he started the year the way he ended last year. So it’s going to be tough to beat him this year for sure, but the year is long and I’m sure there will be some opportunity.”
Djokovic, who is currently on a 15-match winning streak, will be making his first appearance since beating Murray in straight sets in the Australian Open final three weeks ago.
The 28-year-old spent most of those three weeks without touching a racquet as he said he needed to “recharge” and gain the “freshness” he needs to compete well in Dubai and the upcoming stretch of tournaments.
Djokovic is well aware of the incredible dominance he is enjoying – his wins in 2016 included a 6-1, 6-2 rout of Nadal, and two sets of unfathomable tennis against Federer in the Melbourne semis – and insists his accomplishments come as no real shocker to him.
“I have to be honest it doesn’t surprise me. I expect a lot from myself and I put a lot of dedication in every aspect of that work to the sport in order to get the results that I’m getting,” said Djokovic, whose first obstacle towards a fifth title in Dubai will be an opener against Spanish veteran Tommy Robredo on Monday.
“I try to approach each tournament optimistically and I believe that I can win every match that I play against anybody, on any surface. And I think the tournaments and results that I’ve had in the last couple of years have given me enough reason to be optimistic.
“I try not to be over-confident because I have a lot of respect for the other players and I know I’m not the only one who wants to be the best in the world. But being at the peak of my career at the moment, I’m trying to use this momentum that I have and take everything out of myself and achieve more.”
Wawrinka faces Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky in his opener, which is a repeat of their first round in Marseille last week.
The 30-year-old Swiss kicked off 2016 by retaining his title in Chennai but then lost a tough five-setter to Milos Raonic at the Australian Open last month before falling to his good friend Benoit Paire in the Marseille quarter-finals last Friday.
Wawrinka is here solo, without his coach Magnus Norman, and says he chose to come back to Dubai after so many years in order to spruce up his schedule.
“Alone, myself and I,” he said laughing. “For three years I had no coach so I was often travelling alone. I have no problem with it, I think sometimes I like it to be by myself. It’s not better, it’s just that all the year you have so many people around you, you have so many things to do for people, for tournaments, for everything so sometimes I like to take a week alone.”