Novak Djokovic may have extended his undefeated run in Abu Dhabi and added one more victory to the winning streak he started last September, but the main buzz around the tennis stadium at Zayed Sports City was Boris Becker and the Serb sharing a practice court for the first time in public.
Much has been said since Djokovic made the surprise appointment of the German legend and yesterday, hundreds of fans got to witness the partnership come to life as Becker spent over an hour coaching the world No2 before his semi-final against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.
And the pairing enjoyed a successful debut as Djokovic took out Tsonga 7-6 (7/5), 6-3 in 76 minutes to reach his third consecutive final in the UAE capital.
“It’s great to have him around,” Djokovic said of Becker, a six-time Grand Slam champion. “We are midway through our preparations. This is the third or fourth time that we’re together on the court.
“It was the first time for him watching me play a match as my coach, courtside. It was a new experience for both of us and it went well. We talked before the match about what the future will bring for us, how we are going to prepare not just tomorrow’s match but for the whole season.”
Some have questioned Djokovic’s decision to bring in Becker but the Serb says he’s already learnt a lot from the German in the short period they have worked together.
“I’m learning every day from him,” he explained. “We talk about things. His greatness is obvious in the tennis world. “He’s been a member of the Laureus Academy, so he’s been doing a lot of charity activities around the world so it says enough about his personality, he’s trying to keep his link to the sport.
“He’s been working on TV and of course listening to him analyse tennis is fantastic so I’m excited to hear more on the court from him to see how he can help me out.
“So far it’s been working great. Unfortunately he’s not able to run, he’s not able to play, I was hoping I could play with him a little bit but he has a problem with his ankle and with his knees, so if anybody can help him, please I would love to play with Boris,” the 26-year-old added with a laugh.
Both Djokovic and Tsonga had a great serving day, with the duo blasting 200+km/hour missiles for a total of 17 aces. Djokovic drew first blood in the first set breaking for a 4-2 lead but Tsonga broke back forcing a tiebreak, which the Serb took on his second set point on a poor backhand volley from his opponent.
The players have described the surface at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship this year as faster than usual and Tsonga certainly tried to take advantage of that, serving big and coming into the net but it was Djokovic’s consistency that wore down the Frenchman.
And when the defending champion opened up a 5-2 lead in the second set, it was over for Tsonga. The Serb will target a third straight title in the final today.
Despite the loss, Tsonga is happy that he got to play three top-four players in a row in one weekend.
“It’s perfect,” said Tsonga, who beat Andy Murray on day one and will face Rafael Nadal in the thirdplace playoff today. “It’s good to play those players and to play them I have to play many matches before so now I can play them straight away because this way I can evaluate my tennis and know if I’m far or not.”
Andy Murray is feeling positive about his physical state despite the straight sets loss he suffered at the hands of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Abu Dhabi on Thursday night.
Playing for the first time since September, after which he underwent back surgery, the world No4 was eager to see how his body would react in real match conditions and while the Scot appeared to struggle on serve at times, he feels he moved well enough for his first outing of the season.
“I thought I moved well in the first set, once I got into the rallies I moved well so that was pleasing. I didn’t feel slow at all in the first set,” said Murray after his 7-5, 6-3 defeat.
“Second set maybe I slowed down slightly but that’s something that’s going to get better by playing matches. I can’t expect to feel great for long periods of matches when I haven’t played for a while.
“I think I moved pretty well, I just need to be able to do it over longer periods. I hit some big serves, I haven’t lost any power on my serve. I just felt like I haven’t played a match for a while but my body felt reasonably good.”
Tsonga, also returning from injury, appeared to have fully recovered from his knee problems which forced him out of the US Open a few months ago, as the Frenchman exploded onto the court, firing huge serves and charging the net any chance he got, which didn’t allow Murray to find his rhythm.
“Playing in front of a crowd and playing at that intensity, I’m playing against a very big server, he comes to the net. So it’s a lot of quick movements, changing direction, that’s just things that will get better with playing matches. I’ve trained a lot, I’ve practiced a lot but it’s very different when you get on the match court,” added Murray.
The world No4 explained he isn’t taking anti-inflammatories and will not work on his body too much to see how he feels on Friday, where he takes on Stanislas Wawrinka in the fifth-place playoff.
“It’s actually best for me to try and not do too much recovery just now so when I wake up in the morning how everything feels. So I won’t do loads tonight and see how it feels in the morning,” said Murray.
The Wimbledon champion says the focus now is to get enough match play ahead of the Australian Open and he revealed he will be playing both singles and doubles in Doha next week, partnering Nenad Zimonjic.
He says the forced break from tennis gave him a chance to stay home and spend time with family but he realized he missed the grind of the tour as well.
“I feel fresher. It is an 11-month season, we do a lot of travelling, but when you’re just playing you get a bit tired of being away and being at hotels and airports but when you’re away for a few months you realise that you enjoy that. I’ve been doing it my whole life and I miss it. I’m happy to be back,” said the 26-year-old from Scotland.
Meanwhile, Tsonga says he felt good physically and was happy with every aspect of his game. It was the Frenchman’s first ever win in three appearances in Abu Dhabi and he says he was happy with how the crowd reacted to his aggressive game.
“Today I was happy with everything. It’s not easy because the court is really quick so it’s tough to play from the baseline so I chose to play offensive, I just played good tennis because it’s not every day you beat Andy in two sets, so it was a good match,” said Tsonga, who faces Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals on Friday.
The earlier match saw David Ferrer beat Stanislas Wawrinka, the man the Spaniard had lost to in his final match of the 2013 season.
Ferrer was down a break in the first set but ran away with nine straight games to open up a 7-5, 5-0 lead and never looked back.
Ferrer faces world No1 Rafael Nadal in the semi-finals on Friday.
Novak Djokovic believes that he and Boris Becker will form a great partnership and the world No2 says he is certain that he and the German legend will get along well.
Djokovic made a surprise announcement last week, revealing he has hired Becker as his head coach – a decision which has raised many eyebrows amongst pundits and fans. And while many predict that two type-A personalities like Djokovic and Becker may clash, the Serb says he’s not worried about that.
“Of course he’s a very strong personality, he’s German,” Djokovic said of Becker. “He’s very disciplined but also he has this fun side of him and he’s open-minded.
“I grew up in Germany, I basically spent between the age of 12 and 16 a lot of time in the Niki Pilic Tennis Academy, close to Munich. I took German in school.
“I understand how the German mentality works and I know it’s a lot of hard work and commitment but also he has this different side of him, he’s very open-minded, he’s a storyteller and I’m sure it’s going to be a very comfortable relationship for both of us.”
Numerous coaching changes have taken place amongst the top players in recent months and many have brought in ex-champions to help them step up their game.
Andy Murray seems to have started the trend, bringing in Ivan Lendl, who has guided the Scot to his first ever Grand Slam. Kei Nishikori is working with Michael Chang, Richard Gasquet has teamed up with Sergi Bruguera and now Djokovic is with Becker, but the 26-year-old Serb says his decision was not influenced by Murray’s success with Lendl.
“I think for Andy, Ivan Lendl did a great job. Since he came on board he won two Grand Slams and Olympic gold medal so he definitely helped him in his game. But my decision to start working with Boris hasn’t been inspired by the fact that Ivan is working with Andy,” said Djokovic.
Becker, who will be joining Djokovic in Abu Dhabi this weekend, where the Serb is the two-time defending champion, was famous for his serve-and-volley aggressive style and the German could help his new protégé improve that aspect of his game.
Djokovic says he’s already been approaching the net more this past season and says Becker will continue to help him work on that, insisting that Marian Vajda – his coach of eight years – will continue to play an integral part in his team.
“I think we have a great understanding between the three of us (Djokovic, Vajda and Becker), because Marian is also in the mix and that’s very important because he has worked with me for the last eight years,” said Djokovic.
“I won my first and 41st tournaments with Marian Vajda and it’s extremely important that he’s part of all these discussions and conversations and analysis of what I need to do on the court to improve and get at least one or two or five per cent better, as much as possible of course.
“I did work on my net game. I did work on approaching and using the opportunities that I build for myself with my groundstrokes, with my baseline play. Because I’m a baseline player but I wanted to stay closer to the line and come to the net and I was doing that really well but that was all the result of the work that I’ve done with Marian and I’m going to try to continue doing the same with Boris.
“We’re not going to make any major changes because I feel like I’m already a complete player.
“I’m not going to start serving and volleying because I’ve never done that. I’m going to put a mix here and there but my game is going to be the same with certain adjustments with the positioning on the court and that’s more or less what we’re going to do.”
While he joked that the main reason he chose to add Becker to his team was to improve his German language skills, Djokovic went on to explain: “He’s a six-time Grand Slam champion, he won so many trophies in his life, he was a former No1, and speaking to Marian in the last few months of the year, we both came to the conclusion that I’m going to need another legendary player that can eventually help me understand better what I need to do in particular situations, especially in the Grand Slam final stages. To give me that mental edge.
“He can identify with me because he was in those situations so he knows what I go through, so that’s what one of the biggest reasons he’s on board.
“So I believe the combination of Boris and Marian will be the winning combination for me and that I will manage to get better and improve my game and this mental strength in the most important tournaments and the most important moments of the match.”
Djokovic will kick off his MWTC campaign on Friday against the winner of the match between Murray and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.