Andy Murray will step-up his preparations for the 2018 season by conducting a training block at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
The Scot, who is only practicing and not competing in Abu Dhabi, will take to the courts at the Zayed Sports City venue to fine-tune his off-season before travelling to Australia.
It is still unclear, however, just when Murray will be ready to return to the match court proper and a decision is still to be made over his participation in the upcoming Brisbane International event.
For Murray and his team, though, the ultimate goal is for him to be in the best possible shape ahead of the Australian Open, beginning on January 15.
Murray, a three-time Grand Slam winner, has not played a competitive match since a five-set defeat to American Sam Querrey in the Wimbledon quarter-finals last July.
Since then, the 30-year-old has had to contend with a nagging right hip problem.
The Brit will have the chance to hit with the likes of Novak Djokovic and Dominic Thiem in the UAE capital.
Dominic Thiem admits he suffered a “breakdown” in confidence following last year’s US Open but the world No. 5 comes to Abu Dhabi for the Mubadala World Tennis Championship with restored self-belief after a solid preseason training block.
The 24-year-old Austrian, who makes his Abu Dhabi debut on Friday against either Pablo Carreno Busta or Kevin Anderson, will be looking to rebound from a dip in form he experienced at the end of 2017, when he takes to the court at Zayed Sports City this weekend.
Thiem had squandered a two-sets-to-love lead against an ailing Juan Martin del Potro in the US Open fourth round to crash out of the tournament last September. He won just three out of 10 tour matches after that, and concedes that New York defeat stayed with him.
Thiem, a two-time French Open semi-finalist, has been one of the standout players from the younger generation and has been able to challenge the so-called ‘Big Four’ but he has a reputation of overplaying, and running out of steam towards the tail-end of the year.
Is that something he hopes to avoid in 2018?
“I want this for sure but actually I felt really fine (physically) at the end of the (2017) season. There was this tough loss against Del Potro which for sure gave me a little bit a breakdown for some weeks,” Thiem told Sport360.
“I think I lost all three-set matches (after that) besides the match in London, so that was not very good for my confidence – I need confidence to play good tennis. It was completely lost actually at the end of the season and for me it’s also tougher to get it back indoors or on faster surfaces.
“It was also a little bit unlucky so I hope it’s a bit different next year and of course I also try to improve indoors and on faster surfaces.”
The eight-time ATP titlist believes he has regained his confidence now after a strong few weeks of training in the offseason and is ready to take on the field in Abu Dhabi, before officially kicking off his season in Doha next week.
“I got it back now for sure because I think it’s nice that the whole tour stopped, you don’t have to worry about any results or that somebody can overtake you. I practiced very well so I got back a lot of confidence,” he added.
“It can be one of two matches and everything comes back again but those one or two matches just didn’t happen when I needed them at the end of last season and yeah I hope and I think that it’s going to happen next year.”
Thiem is in Abu Dhabi with Spanish coach Galo Blanco, who ended a four-year partnership with Karen Khachanov last month.
Thiem had a phenomenal clay-court season in 2017, where he stood out as the main rival against a dominant Rafael Nadal. The pair faced off in four tournaments back-to-back — in the finals of Barcelona and Madrid, the quarters in Rome and the semis at Roland Garros, with Nadal winning three of those showdowns.
“It was really nice to play him four times, I think it was great, almost four tournaments in a row. For sure I hope that it’s the same this year because if I play him on clay that means that I go deep in the tournaments,” said Thiem of his rivalry with the world No. 1.
“He will go for sure deep anyway because he’s Rafa but I have to watch out that I can maybe repeat it. It was a really great clay-court season, there I was putting the base for all the good ranking, for all the London thing and everything so of course I try to play as successful as I did.”
Thiem ended the year in the top-five for the first time and says he hopes to go a step further at the majors, after making back-to-back semis in Paris. The Austrian and Alexander Zverev separated themselves from other younger players, but at the Slams, all four titles were split between Nadal and Roger Federer. Thiem says 2018 could be the year players from his generation can finally steal away a major trophy from the hands of the ‘Big Four’.
“I think we should. The Masters 1000 we did already last year with Sascha’s (Zverev’s) two titles, and also the other tournaments. But the majors, Rafa and Roger were just too strong and I think this you have to accept. But at one point you have to also make a breakthrough at the majors and I think 2018 is the time for it,” said Thiem.
He featured in the ATP Finals in London for a second time last month and explained how he now feels like he belongs among the world’s elite players.
“I mean last year everything was completely new. I was very tight in all matches and then also of course it was a bit weird to be part of all this. Of course like every player I watched it on TV when I was 15, 16 years old in London and then all of a sudden I was there by myself competing, which was very new, so it was way easier this year and also more enjoyable I guess,” he said of his ATP Finals experience.
The line-up may not be as blockbuster as it’s been in previous years, but it’s fair to say that all eyes will be on the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) this weekend in Abu Dhabi as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic make their long-awaited returns to the court.
For the first time in the tournament’s 10-year history, a women’s match will take place at the MWTC, and who else to mark that special occasion than one of the greatest tennis players of all-time – the one and only Serena.
She takes on reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition clash on Saturday December 30.
New mum Serena, who delivered her first child Alexis Olympia in September, has not played since winning a record 23rd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last January.
While some people can discard her Abu Dhabi appearance as a mere exhibition, there’s definitely reason for the world to be paying close attention to Serena’s match on Saturday.
Although she has hinted in the past that her intention is to try and defend her Australian Open crown next month, Serena has made no official statements regarding her tour return date and there is very little information out there as to how much she’s been practicing since the birth of her child.
Barring two images posted on her Instagram – one of a tennis court and the other of her pair of tennis shoes on what appears to be a tennis court – Serena has not shared any photos or videos of her actually hitting or practicing.
Seeing Serena hit a tennis ball here in Abu Dhabi this weekend is going to be a big deal no matter what.
While the MWTC is indeed an exhibition event, players have rarely treated it that way. The level of play tends to be highly competitive simply because top stars use it as a means to gage their form ahead of the new season.
Serena is facing the world No. 7 in the UAE capital. She will definitely be prepared to put together a solid performance against the fiery Ostapenko, and it will hardly be a hit-and-giggle situation.
You also don’t expect the 36-year-old to make the trip from the US to Abu Dhabi only to return state-side after that. She probably plans on flying to Australia after that, which is an encouraging sign she could be on court in Melbourne next month.
While the world will no doubt be following whatever unfolds at Zayed Sports City, Serena’s presence is a huge positive for local fans here in the UAE. The MWTC is one of the fan-friendliest tennis events in the world, and to think you can actually access the practice courts, free of charge, and accidentally stumble upon a Serena Williams warm-up or training session is unmatchable elsewhere.
Finally adding a female component to the event is also brilliant news for Abu Dhabi.
Think of all the young girls who can get inspired by someone like Serena and Ostapenko, playing in their own backyard. While the UAE is no stranger to women’s tennis, with Dubai hosting a WTA event since 2001, having a female presence at the MWTC is long overdue. Hopefully the idea is here to stay.
— Sport360° (@Sport360) December 27, 2017
Meanwhile, Djokovic is set to make his first appearance since Wimbledon and how he fares against the likes of Dominic Thiem or Roberto Bautista Agut can be quite telling ahead of his official season start in Doha next week.
We’ve seen how, this time last year, Rafael Nadal returned from an injury break by playing and winning Abu Dhabi, then going on to enjoy a phenomenal season that saw him get back to the top of the rankings. David Goffin displayed subliminal form in the UAE capital 12 months ago then went on to finish 2017 ranked No. 7 in the world and defeating Roger Federer and Nadal en route to the runner-up spot at the ATP Finals.
Getting the better of some of the top players in the world ahead of the new season could be just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic, and a welcome confidence boost.
Even if Serena and Djokovic are not ready to showcase some strong form, Abu Dhabi will no doubt reveal insight into where they’re heading.
The 10th edition of the MWTC is suddenly must-see TV. Be sure to tune in!