If anyone wants proof that men’s tennis is on the cusp of a real transition, then look no further than the draw of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
The tournament, which began with its qualifying rounds on Saturday and will officially kick off its main draw on Monday, has always featured a stacked field headlined by multiple top-10 players like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The Dubai title was won by a member of the ‘Big Five’ (Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, or Stan Wawrinka) in each of the last nine years and 14 of the last 15 editions.
But this year, none of them are competing in the Dubai showpiece, and only one top-10 player – Grigor Dimitrov – is in the draw.
While Federer and Nadal occupy the top two spots in the world rankings, the rest of the top-10 is looking fairly different to what we’ve been used to and features three players aged 25 and under – Alexander Zverev (20 years old), Dominic Thiem (24) and Jack Sock (25).
Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka have struggled with injuries while Federer has been playing a lighter schedule to preserve his energy and extend his career. Nadal is dealing with a hip problem he picked up in Melbourne last month but is due to make a return this upcoming week in Acapulco.
For the first time in a long time, the Dubai tournament is quite open and it feels like literally any one of the 32 players in the draw can lift the trophy next Saturday.
“I think not only this tournament. If you look at the whole year, last year already and also beginning of this year, you see a lot more surprises, you see different winners, except maybe if Roger is there, but it is a little bit different because all these top guys that used to win everything they’ve been injured or are struggling and all these other guys have been playing better,” said Dutchman Robin Haase, who reached the semi-finals in Dubai last season and is the ninth-highest ranked player in this year’s draw.
“The level is just getting closer and closer and I think that’s great. I think the time that you knew the quarters are probably going to look like this, or six out of eight are those names, now it’s only two out of eight.
“I think that’s good. I think you see more variety of players so I’m looking forward also myself to play in these times because it’s more open than ever.”
Haase faces Italian Paolo Lorenzi in the first round in Dubai and could potentially take on Dimitrov in his second match. Dimitrov got Tunisian wildcard Malek Jaziri in his opener.
“I always look at my first round, it’s no use to look further,” said Haase. “I was almost seeded, I was No. 9, so I was actually hoping for someone to pull out so I would be seeded. To be in the second round maybe already get the No. 1 of the draw that’s not great. But it’s the way it is. But I have to win my first round. The No. 1 has to win his first round. So it’s open and I’m looking forward to it.”
Next Gen player Borna Coric, who upset Andy Murray here in 2015 on his way to the semi-finals, is a resident in Dubai and frequents the emirate to train every offseason.
He has good memories from this tournament but still thinks it will be tough for everyone, even in the absence of the big guns.
“It is a little bit more open but all these guys are great players, they’re very competitive. Each match is a different story so it’s not going to be easy,” said the 21-year-old Croatian.
Coric begins his campaign against French No. 5 seed Richard Gasquet.
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)
Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)  v Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 
Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP)  v Richard Gasquet (FRA) 
Damir Dzumhur (BIH)  v Filip Krajinovic (SRB) 
Lucas Pouille (FRA)  v Yuichi Sugita (JPN) 
Malek Jaziri (TUN)
Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE)
Marcos Baghdatis (CYP)
ONES TO WATCH
Karen Khachanov (RUS)
The world No. 47 Next Gen star has a big game that can cause some serious damage on the fast courts of Dubai. This is just his second appearance at the tournament – he lost his opener to Bautista Agut last year – but he is a Dubai resident and is familiar with the hot and humid conditions. He is playing the semi-finals in Marseille on Saturday so will have to deal with a quick turnaround to be ready for Dubai.
Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP)
The No. 3 seed, ranked No. 22 in the world, is making his sixth consecutive appearance in Dubai, where he reached the quarter-finals in 2016. He already has a title under his belt this season, defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the final in Auckland last month, but has since struggled. With this open draw, Dubai could provide the perfect opportunity for the Spaniard to bounce back.
“Well, everyone fears something. There is not really ‘fearless’. There’s no such thing like that,” said Svitolina, who is just one win away from defending her Dubai title following her 6-3, 6-3 semi-final triumph over Angelique Kerber on Friday.
“Yeah, she had tough road to the final. I will just try to focus on my game, as I did before. She produces good game. But I will try to be ready and, yeah, just take next opponent on.”
Kasatkina saved three match points against Garbine Muguruza before sending the No. 2 seed packing in a 3-6, 7-6 (11), 6-1 thriller in front of a buoyant crowd at the Aviation Club on Friday.
That came just two days after she saved two match points to defeat No. 7 seed Johanna Konta in the last-16 on Wednesday.
“After winning two matches from match points, I’m not scared of anything already. Playing tiebreak every match, no, I’m scared,” declared Kasatkina on Friday.
The 20-year-old giant-slayer, who is guaranteed a new career-high ranking of 20 on Monday, and could go higher if she wins the title, is through to her third career final, playing some sensational tennis.
Kasatkina has spent nine hours and five minutes on court so far en route to the final, compared to four hours and 57 minutes for Svitolina, who played one less match due to her bye in the first round.
It’s understandable if the world No. 24 might not have enough left in the tank for Saturday’s showdown.
“It’s already final, so I have to put, like, everything that’s left in my body into this match. I hope I will,” said Kasatkina, who trails Svitolina 0-2 head-to-head.
The 23-year-old Svitolina is looking to become just the third woman to defend the Dubai title alongside Justine Henin and Venus Williams while Kasatkina could become just the second Russian woman to lift the trophy here, following Elena Dementieva in 2008.
— WTA (@WTA) February 23, 2018
Kasatkina looked down and out when Muguruza was serving for the match at 6-3, 5-4. But Kasatkina broke the Spaniard’s serve and the set eventually went to a tiebreak.
Both players upped the ante and it was a real nail-biter that saw Kasatkina save three match points and Muguruza save three set points before the underdog sealed the deal 13-11.
Muguruza, the reigning Wimbledon champion, ran out of steam in the decider as Kasatkina’s heroics once again got her through.
In their most recent previous meeting, Kasatkina served for the match and held match point before losing to Muguruza in the Brisbane last-16 last year.
It was a role reversal this time around.
“My first set point in the tiebreak, I was serving, and the picture from Brisbane last year I had in front of my face,” Kasatkina admitted following her win on Friday.
“Just I was smiling inside. I looked at my brother because I think he also knew I was going to remind this thing. Yeah, it was special match, for sure.”
— WTA (@WTA) February 23, 2018
Asked for a reason why she won against Muguruza, Kasatkina said: “Who knows. He knows (looking up to God). When you’re winning from match points, you don’t know why.
“I was just trying to fight for every ball because Garbine, she’s playing unbelievable. She’s very tough opponent. She’s hitting so hard, playing so fast. I was just trying to do whatever I could.”
Kasatkina came to Dubai with “no expectations” after retiring with a neck injury in her Doha opener the previous week.
She has since played over nine hours of tennis and is one of two last women standing in the tournament.
“Actually, before the (Muguruza semi-final) match I was really, really tired. When you’re going on court, adrenaline is coming, and you just can forget about it. You start to run, blood start to run into your body, that’s it. You’re just focused on every ball. The tiredness is somewhere, going somewhere, yeah,” said Kasatkina.
On her part, Svitolina is looking forward to her second consecutive Dubai final, after claiming a seventh win over Kerber in 12 meetings.
Last year, Dubai was, at the time, her biggest title triumph, and one that saw her crack the top-10 for the first time. Today she is No. 4 in the world and owns 10 career titles.
Looking back to how she felt on the eve of her Dubai final last year, Svitolina said: “I was definitely a little nervous because I had much more things, like I was reaching top-10 for the first time, it was my biggest title at the time. This time is different. Still I’m very excited for the final. But still it is different.”
Roger Federer will not be accepting a last-minute wildcard into the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships that starts on Monday, tournament director Salah Tahlak confirmed on Friday.
Federer, who secured a return to the No. 1 ranking by reaching the semi-finals and eventually winning the title in Rotterdam last week, has been a regular in Dubai, competing here 13 times and capturing the trophy on seven occasions.
The Swiss had hinted that he could be coming to Dubai, which could have extended the gap between him and Rafael Nadal in the world rankings (Federer is currently a mere 345 points ahead).
But Tahlak says he spoke to Federer’s agent Tony Godsick two days ago and the American informed him the Swiss has chosen to rest this upcoming week before heading to Indian Wells and Miami where he is defending champion in both.
“I understand and I believe whatever’s good for him is good for us. You can’t really push him more,” Tahlak said in an interview with Sport360 and The National.
“Because had he not won in Rotterdam he would have definitely come here. I really respect him, as a professional and as an athlete. He’s on top of all athletes really, with all due respect to all the players, WTA and ATP, but I think he’s a really different personality. He’s so classy and has done well for the game, has done well for Dubai. He’s a legend.”
Tahlak added: “For him it would have been a good year to come and then maybe add another 500 points. It would have been easier for him. It’s always difficult when (Rafael) Nadal and (Novak) Djokovic, Andy Murray and Stan (Wawrinka), none of them were here, so it would have been easy for him.
“Again, in the end he decided with his coach and physios, they know him best. As Tony said he has to look at it health-wise, because in August he’s going to be 37 years old. For me, I can’t say anything, but that I wish him all the best.”
Tahlak sounded confident that Federer will be coming to compete in Dubai in the future, saying: “Probably, because Tony (his agent) said yes, if we can plan things ahead, he will come back next year.”
For a tournament that has an ATP 500 status, Dubai has often had such strong fields that resembled some of the biggest events in the world.
Federer, Djokovic, Murray and many other marquee names have frequented the tournament but this year, Grigor Dimitrov is the only top-10 player present in the draw.
Tahlak has confirmed that Dimitrov has indeed arrived to Dubai.
“Dimitrov is here. He’s not staying here (pointing to the on-site Jumeirah Creekside hotel), he wants to be away from the rest, you know, typical top-10 player,” said Tahlak.
Tahlak says that the tournament usually secures deals with top players as early as Wimbledon the previous year, although sometimes negotiations are completed by the US Open. He revealed that in the past, multiple three-year deals were made with Federer and Djokovic to play in Dubai.
“Andy confirmed and then halfway through said he can’t make it. Stan almost, 50/50, Novak 50/50. At the same time, the rest they will go to Acapulco,” admitted Tahlak.
Acapulco used to be played on clay up until it was switched to hard-court in 2014. Tahlak says that change has had a negative effect on the Dubai tournament.
“It’s a direct competition. Double-up week, very difficult. It was better when they were clay, but since they changed court in 2014 it’s a direct competition, a direct head-to-head with us,” said the Emirati.
“Another advantage Acapulco has got, is that it’s closer to Indian Wells. It’s a three-hour flight versus 15 hours.”
While Tahlak is confident that the Dubai tournament has enough tradition to attract fans even without the usual star-studded field, he says people should also start realising that a transitional period is coming in tennis where the likes of Federer and Nadal will retire and younger players will take their place.
“A lot of them don’t understand it’s no longer like it was. Like in football, at one point people will no longer think about Messi or Ronaldo, in a way the players will all fade out one day, they’re all going to go,” he says.
“So we have to accept that. I think we’ve been good for many years and I believe we should focus on the new generation. That’s really also what ATP president Chris Kermode is promoting at the moment, the Next Generation. Because how many more years will Roger last? Two more? And even Nadal… all of them. It’s the end of their tennis careers. The younger ones are doing well as well.
“The fans should understand tennis is like any other sport. It moves up and down, this is the game.”
Tahlak also hit out at offseason exhibition tournaments, saying they are contributing to the increase in players’ injuries.
“Another problem is that a lot of players they do also play in the offseason, so that gives them more money, but also more injuries and more risk to their health. Some of them use it as practice,” he added.
“Financially it means a lot for them, but also a risk of injuries. And that’s what we’re all suffering from, the other tournaments.”