There aren’t many places in the world nowadays where Novak Djokovic is not the most successful player but Dubai happens to be one of those stops.
Djokovic – a four-time Dubai champion – has had to share top honours here over the past decade with Roger Federer, whose seven titles picked up in the Emirates are the most anyone has ever won at this event.
Federer, who is recovering from knee surgery, is missing the Dubai tournament for just the third time since he made his debut here in 2002. And while his absence strengthens Djokovic’s chances in securing a fifth Dubai trophy, the world No1 says he’s not happy Federer isn’t around.
“I hope he recovers fast, because we are not used to seeing him injured. He’s very fit, and he plays very well throughout the entire year,” Djokovic said on Monday after easing past Tommy Robredo 6-1, 6-2 to reach the second round at the Aviation Club.
“He’s very important for our sport. He’s the most successful player of this tournament. So for sure the tournament will miss him.
“Again, that doesn’t change much in the way I approach this tournament. I will try to go as far as I can, even with him not playing here.”
Djokovic was making his first appearance since winning an all-time record sixth Australian Open three weeks ago but showed zero signs of rust in his 65-minute drubbing of the veteran Spaniard.
Robredo, a 33-year-old former world No5 who is now down to No41, had actually beaten Djokovic in their most recent meeting, in Cincinnati in 2014, but he was no match for the top seed in their Dubai opener yesterday.
Djokovic eased to a 3-0 lead and hit a cunning lob en route to breaking again for 5-1, putting on a show with wide variety in his shots and he easily served out the set.
The top seed broke in the third game of the second and never looked back, booking a second round meeting with Tunisian wildcard Malek Jaziri.
The world No1 is now just one match away from hitting the 700 wins milestone and could tie Ivan Lendl’s record of making 18 consecutive finals should he reach the title match in Dubai this week.
“Obviously playing first match in three weeks, different conditions, I didn’t know how I’m going to start, whether or not I’m going to execute the game plan as I prepared myself to. But everything went well. Very few things went wrong,” explained Djokovic, who is currently on a 16-match winning streak.
“I was putting constant pressure on his serve. I returned very, very well. Served solid and was aggressive from back of the court. I cannot be happier with this performance.”
Earlier in the day, Jaziri justified his wildcard by completing a 6-4, 6-1 victory over two-time Dubai runner-up Mikhail Youzhny in the first round.
Jaziri came to the UAE winless in 2016, carrying a five-match losing streak, but stood his ground as he took out the Russian qualifier.
“It was very hard day, really. Was very hot on court, and in the beginning it was very hard for me, even to breathe. I just arrived from the US two days ago (lost in the first round in Delray Beach). I woke up this morning very early. I’m still jet-lagged,” said the 32-year-old.
“But the most important thing is that I was fighting. During the whole match from the first point to the end, I was fighting. I had a break down and then I came back. So was very important for me today this win.”
On his upcoming match against Djokovic, Jaziri, who is a good friend of the Serb, said: “It would be a good match. I will try to enjoy on court and I will play all my chances.
“He’s playing his best tennis now, and is true he’s beating everyone. But I will be on court like all the matches. In tennis you never know. That’s part of this beautiful game. Who knows? Maybe I wake up on a good day.”
Over on Court 1, South Korean teenager Chung Hyeon took out Andreas Seppi 6-3, 6-4 to reach the second round.
The ATP’s Most Improved Player of the Year in 2015, is one of the youngsters to watch on tour and was making his Dubai debut.
“It was a good win, it was tough, Seppi’s a baseliner, he plays well. And after three weeks playing indoors, I think I did well,” Chung said.
Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis upset No5 seed Viktor Troicki 7-6(2), 6-2 in 90 minutes to book a second round meeting with Canadian Vasek Pospisil.
“In the first set I think I started a bit too aggressive I think then I slowed down a bit, I was more patient. In the tiebreak I was more patient than him, played less unforced errors and I was in control in the second set,” said Baghdatis, a semi-finalist in Dubai in 2010.
“The courts here are very fast, I like them, it suits my serve, my game. It’s nice to come back to Dubai, great weather after the Europe tour.”
Feliciano Lopez was made to work hard for his 400th career match win yesterday as he battled for three sets with Guillermo Garcia-Lopez before reaching the second round.
Sixth-seeded Lopez, a two-time runner-up in Dubai, has not had the best of times at tournaments this month as he had to retire from his quarter-final in Quito as he struggled to regulate his heartbeat, playing at high altitude, before losing in the first round in Marseille last week. But he made a great start against fellow Spaniard Garcia-Lopez, racing to a 5-0 lead en route to taking the first set but went down 1-3 in the second.
The world No24 broke back but Garcia-Lopez regained his advantage and leveled the match, forcing a decider.
Lopez opened up a 2-0 gap in the final set and got another break point in game five after a 29-shot rally that ended with a Garcia-Lopez wide backhand. But a good serve saw Garcia-Lopez save his third break point of the game and he held for 2-3 to avoid going down a double-break. But that was enough for Lopez and he sealed the win by successfully rushing the net.
He awaits the winner of today’s first round match between Indian wildcard Yuki Bhambri and Czech world No51 Lukas Rosol.
“Very happy, first of all, because I think it is a good number, 400 wins,” the 34-year-old Lopez said with a smile.
“It’s been a long time since I started playing tennis, and I’m very happy that I have been able to achieve this number. It means that I was also very lucky in terms of injuries. I have been able to play for almost 15 years.
“Guillermo is a tough player for me to face. He’s a very solid player. He has very good groundstrokes. He hits the ball really hard. But I was very aggressive. I think I was doing the right things, especially in the beginning of the match.”
Ahead of his first round match against Sergiy Stakhovsky in Dubai on Tuesday, World No4 Stan Wawrinka tries Sport360’s Arabic Test.
Let’s see how he fares…