Federer draws former finalist at Dubai DFTC

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Defending his title: Roger Federer is ready to retain his Dubai Duty Free Tennis crown.

Two-time semi-finalist Richard Gasquet is back in Dubai for the first time in three years and said he is pain-free on Saturday at the draw, which pit defending champion Roger Federer and world No4 Andy Murray in the same half.

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– VIDEO: Dubai DFTC: Ivanovic exits,Halep into quarters

Gasquet, who won his 11th career title in Montepellier two weeks ago, was forced to withdraw from the tournament in Marseille last week with a back problem.

But the former world No7 has been seen practicing in Dubai over the past two days and the talented Frenchman assures he is fit and ready to take on Italian Andreas Seppi – a winner over Federer at the Australian Open last month – in a tricky opening round.

“I’m feeling okay. I had some injuries in Montpellier, even though I won the tournament but I think now I’m feeling great. No pain,” the 28-year-old Gasquet said.

“Seppi is a good player, he’s very talented. He won against Roger Federer in the Australian Open so I know it will be tough for me. But I have a good chance to win so I will try my best.

“It’s good to be here before Indian Wells and Miami, since it’s outdoors too. It’s a great tournament, well-organised. I’ve played semi-finals here, so I will try to perform and why not go to the final?”

Top seed and four-time Dubai champion Novak Djokovic will begin his campaign against Canadian world No60 Vasek Pospisil, and is drawn to potentially face sixth-seeded Feliciano Lopez in the quarters and two-time runner-up Tomas Berdych in the semi-finals.

World No2 Federer, a record six-time winner in Dubai, has Russian veteran Mikhail Youzhny as his first round opponent, a rematch of their final here in 2007.

“Still, it’s a tough draw for me, but it’s too early to say anything because you never know, maybe after the match I will be happy with how I played,” said Youzhny.

“I think it’s tough to play well against Federer on any surface in any match.”

Third-seeded Murray, a finalist in Dubai in 2012, has a tough first round against big-hitting Gilles Muller of Luxembourg. 

The 31-year-old is in form having reached the fourth round at the Australian Open last month, the semi-finals in Sydney and has beaten the likes of Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin earlier this month in Rotterdam. 

Novak Djokovic (L), Roger Federer (C) and Andy Murray (R).

Dubai has been hit by a wild sandstorm and players have been practicing in tough conditions since their arrival on Friday.

“It’s always difficult to practice in these conditions but the tournament will start on Monday and I think it will be different conditions when we start,” said Gasquet.

Arab No1 Malek Jaziri will open against Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber in a rematch of their quarter-final last year, which the Tunisian lost.

​The wildcards have been awarded to Ireland’s James McGee, ex-Australian Open runner-up Marcos Baghdatis of Cyprus and German up-and-comer Alexander Zverev.

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Dubai DFTC final preview: Diminutive Halep has high hopes

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Dubai stars: Simona Halep (L) and Karolina Pliskova (R).

World No4 Simona Halep is con­sidered one of the shorter players on tour. And when she takes to the court for her first Dubai final on Saturday, she will face Karolina Pliskova, a player who at 1.86m is 18 centime­tres taller than her.

But the petite Romanian is used to punching above her weight – or in this case her height – and while she admits she prefers not to take on opponents with huge serves and booming groundstrokes like Plisko­va, Halep is ready for the challenge.

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WTA stars go the extra mile to make it to Dubai

“When I was young I knew that I would be a short girl, not very tall,” said Halep, who rallied to beat Caroline Wozniacki 2-6, 6-1, 6-1 in the semi-finals last night.

“My idol was Justine Henin because we have the same height. So I think we are faster, we are much faster than taller girls. We cannot serve like 190 kilometres (per hour), so we try to be aggres­sive, to take the ball very quickly, and to finish the points.

“I’m trying not to focus on the height of my opponent, just to play my tennis and to open the angles because it’s the most important, I think.

“When I played against (Maria) Sharapova my first time I said that I’m half of her (height), so it’s not easy to play. But with experience you can go ahead.”

Pliskova isn’t just one of the tall­est girls on tour, she is the WTA leader in aces struck this season, having fired 144 so far.

The 22-year-old Czech, who beat Garbine Muguruza 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 to reach her maiden Premier 5-level final, will be playing Halep for the first time in their professional careers and will be seeking her big­gest title to date.

Pliskova, who has played a WTA-leading 21 matches so far this sea­son, was contemplating withdraw­ing from Dubai after her hectic schedule saw her make the final in Sydney, reach the third round in Melbourne, lead the Czech Republic to a Fed Cup win in Quebec, appear in the semis in Antwerp before flying to the UAE – all within a five-week period.

She said she had to come to Dubai anyway, even if she was going to withdraw, and next thing she knows, she is in the final. It was also a nice boost knowing that her twin sister Kristyna was win­ning her matches in a $50K ITF in Switzerland, and yesterday reached the semi-finals before Karolina stepped on court for her last four clash with Muguruza.

“I was already tired in Antwerp because I came from Canada to Antwerp. Here I was thinking if to play or if not to play,” said Pliskova, who will rise to at least No12 in the world thanks to her heroics in Dubai.

“I didn’t expect it at all that this can happen before the tournament, so I’m really happy to be in the final.”

Halep, who picked up a ninth career title in Shenzhen earlier this year, had come to Dubai low on confidence, after a shaky Fed Cup weekend, where she lost badly to Muguruza but still saw her Roma­nian side sneak past the Spaniards.

She had a rocky start against Wozniacki yesterday, dropping the first set quickly before launching a strong comeback. The top seed went up a double break 4-0 in the second set and levelled the match on an erratic forehand from Woz­niacki.

Halep quickly went up 2-0 in the decider but the fifth-ranked Wozni­acki struck back, wrong-footing her opponent with a smart backhand.

But Halep regained her advan­tage the following game, breaking for a 3-1 lead.

The Romanian saved two break points to hold the next game and the SI-MO-NA chants in the stands grew louder. She won the next two games, sealing her place in the final with a stunning backhand down the line winner that ended a lengthy rally.

Wozniacki has been battling a bad cold all week as well as man­aging a recurring knee injury and admits it had all finally taken its toll on her.

“I’m still pretty pleased with my week considering everything that has been going on. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough today. It was just like the air in the balloon just kind of went off,” said Wozniacki, who was playing her fifth consecutive Dubai semi-final.

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Dubai DFTC: Pliskova reaches the biggest final of her career

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Karolina Pliskova celebrates after winning her match against Garbine Muguruza during the semi-finals of the WTA Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Karolina Pliskova, the steep-serving 22-year-old from Prague who last month became the youngest player in the current top 20, reached the biggest final of her career with her third outstanding win at the Dubai Open.

Having already ousted two seeded players Pliskova followed it with a nerve-shredding 6-4, 5-7, 7-5 victory over Garbine Muguruza, an elegantly gifted  21-year-old from Barcelona, and snatched a memorable victory just as her chances seemed to be fading.

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WTA stars go the extra mile to make it to Dubai

Pliskova always had the steeper more dangerous serve, and her 13 aces extended her year’s total to 145, the most on the WTA Tour. But there were phases near the end when it seemed that might not be enough. 

She had to save two break points at 3-4 in the final set, holding serve with the help of a video review which showed she had landed another ace, and then slipped to love-40 when she was trying to close the match out at 6-5.

Throughout much of the second half of the final set Muguruza, who had beaten three seeds herself, possessed the more supple and flexible game, giving her more options in a tricky wind.

But in the fraught final game Pliskova was prepared to gamble on hitting flat and hard, something which paid off as she clawed back four points in a row, and six out of seven, to close the match out.

Pliskova looked the more dominant player in the first set but took a long time to make it count, needing ten break points before she was able to convert one.

That happened in the seventh game, and it was enough to take the set. Much might have been different though if Muguruza had taken the option of calling for a video review at a vital stage in the sixth game.

It happned when Pliskova was break point down, and her first serve was deemed to have been an ace after the umpire over-ruled the line judge’s call.

Garbine Muguruza returns the ball to Karolina Pliskova during their semi-final match.

TV replays showed the line judge to have been correct however, and after Muguruza accepted the wrong call, she was unable to win the rally against Pliskova’s second serve.

Muguruza began to make better progress in the second set, earning four break points in the sixth game, none of which she was able to convert, and getting one set point in the ninth game. That chance too eluded her.

But Pliskova delivered a double fault at the start of the tenth game, and then another to concede the set, and for a while afterwards it seemed that Muguruza might be the more likely winner.

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