Mubadala Diary: Tournament offers unique access to top stars

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Big fan: Andy with Emirati Hassan.

If you’re spending the holiday season in Abu Dhabi, it’s hard to think of a better family outing than the Mubadala World Tennis Championship. It never fails to amaze me how big of an opportunity the tournament provides for die-hard tennis fans as it offers unmatchable access to six of the world’s best players each year.

Anyone can walk into the Tennis Village for free here at Zayed Sports City and sit courtside and watch a full practice session of someone like Rafael Nadal or Andy Murray.

Watching top players practice remains one of my favourite things to do at any tournament and it is simply a privilege that never gets old. Over the past couple of days, I watched Nadal practice with David Goffin and Andy Murray hit with Milos Raonic.

Now that Raonic is being coached by 1996 Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, the Dutchman has been with him and his other coach Riccardo Piatti these past few days in Abu Dhabi.

During his session with Murray, Raonic was taking a break to re-grip his racquet so Krajicek just stared hitting with Murray until the Canadian was done. Krajicek hitting with Murray – that’s something you don’t see every day.

I met a woman who was accompanied by her young son and he was disappointed to have missed out on getting Nadal’s autograph earlier during a schedule autograph session with the Spaniard. He stuck around and watched him practice instead and got his signature when he was done.

Those are truly priceless experiences.

It’s not just young kids who have been soaking up the atmosphere and action here. Parents as well got a unique opportunity to attend a clinic with Judy Murray, the mother Andy, who is No. 1 in singles, and Jamie, who reached No. 1 in the world last April.

Judy coached parents on how to get their children learning the core coordination skills that tennis requires from an early age.

“We had little money when I was a young mum, so I became quite good at inventing lots of fun games that helped develop skills that you pretty much need for any sport,” said Judy.

“Andy and Jamie’s first tennis experience was balloons over the sofa, where they started making up their own scoring system. Then it graduated to a rope across two chairs and a sponge ball. Kids learn while they are having fun, they don’t want to listen to you. So if you are smart, the games can do the teaching for you.

“It’s interesting that Andy is right-handed and Jamie left-handed, yet they grew up in the same house in the same way and they’ve both ended up being professional tennis players. But their skills on the court are completely different. Jamie’s skills are around quick reactions, serve and volley, being really fast at the net which is suited to doubles. Andy was a little terrier, scrapper, retriever when he was young. It’s a good example of one size doesn’t fit all.

“You have to find the right way to motivate and develop what is in front of you. Look at your child’s personality, their physicality, the game style that they enjoy and the players that they admire.”

As for the players, there are some perks for them as well. Jo-Wilfried Tsonga sounded quite excited about attending the Coldplay concert on Saturday night in Abu Dhabi to celebrate New Year’s Eve.

Tsonga had gone to the Coldplay concert here a few years ago when he was in town for the MWTC and is looking forward to the encore.

“I will go and watch,” he enthused on Friday. “Four years ago it was a really good memory for me and I hope this one is going to be another good memory.

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Raonic rings in the changes in bid to stay fit

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Milos Raonic.

Raonic had a tremendous last season that saw him reach a maiden grand slam final at Wimbledon and peak at No3 in the world rankings but was still hampered by injuries that dented his chances on the big stage.

An adductor problem played a role in his five-set defeat to Andy Murray in the Australian Open semi-finals, an ankle injury saw him retire in Beijing and a torn right quad ruled him out of the Paris Masters semis.

The 196cm Montenegro-born Canadian has a long history with physical problems but is working hard to avoid such issues in the future.

“I have changed around the way I prepare – even just the way I split my time,” Raonic told reporters in Abu Dhabi Friday following a three-set defeat to Rafael Nadal in the Mubadala World Tennis Championship semi-finals.

“I try to not do really anything that’s pounding on my lower body over the training period other then when I am on the court. That’s one big thing we have focused a lot on.

“Losing some weight as well, to just take some pressure off my joints. These kinds of differences is where the tension has gone and I feel much better.”

Raonic takes on Murray in Saturday’s third-place play-off and he’s looking to capitalise on the attacking game he’s been working on with his new coach Richard Krajicek.

Against Nadal Friday, Raonic dropped serve three times but was pleased with the fact that he managed to turn things around and win the second set, before losing in the third.

Asked how he felt Nadal competed against him, Raonic said: “Rafa’s competing well, he’s always competed well – that’s never been an issue for him – he’s playing well and striking the ball well.

“You can see he’s trying to be a bit more aggressive and really take control of the court. He doesn’t really want to rely on running around too much that he was able to defend like before. He’s doing that quite well and if he keeps that up through the important moments in big matches then he’ll be in fine shape.”

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Defending champ Nadal overcomes Raonic in thriller

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The 14-time Grand Slam champion produced some vintage tennis in the first set, dismantling the Canadian to take the opener 6-1.

Nadal looked to be in control in the early stages of the second set, too, but Raonic found his groove mid-way through and clinched it 6-3.

The Canadian was then broken in the fourth game of the third set and that was the one crucial break the Spaniard needed to serve it out and wrap-up victory, 6-3 in the decider.

He will now play David Goffin in Saturday's showpiece final while Andy Murray and Milos Raonic will battle it out in the third and fourth place match.
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