The 26th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships commenced on Monday with first round action staged across the first two days.
This week, there are two ATP 500 hard-court events taking place – Dubai and Acapulco – with world No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov headlining the field in the Emirates and Rafael Nadal top dog in Mexico.
Here are the main talking points to discuss in Dubai this week…
It’s no secret that Dubai has attracted fewer marquee players this year compared to past seasons with Dimitrov being the only top-10 star in the field and together with Lucas Pouille, they are the sole top-20 players here.
For a tournament that has been dominated by the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray for much of the last decade, this is obviously a surprising draw.
There are a few contributing factors. Federer is 36 and is understandably being more selective with his schedule, and it seems he also committed to attend the Laureus Awards in Monaco on Tuesday.
Nadal was lured by Acapulco since last year, while Djokovic and Murray are both injured.
The Acapulco draw has six of the world’s top-10 and it appears organisers have pulled out all the stops to celebrate the tournament’s 25-year anniversary this week.
The event’s switch from clay to hard-courts in 2014 is now paying dividends, and as it strengthened its position as a direct competition for Dubai, more players are heading west than east for this particular week in the calendar.
Add to that the fact that Acapulco is a short plane ride away from Palm Springs where all the players next compete at Indian Wells and it all adds up. They get to be in the same time zone for a longer period of time, while enjoying the beach in Mexico.
That’s not to say that Dubai won’t be getting strong fields in the future. Players like to change up their schedules from time to time and when all the injured stars are back to full strength, they’re bound to come back to the Aviation Club. Something also tells me Federer won’t retire without at least making one last appearance at his second home.
Karen Khachanov and Pouille arrive to Dubai on Monday night after contesting the final in Marseille on Sunday. Khachanov triumphed over the Frenchman to claim a second career ATP title and first since Chengdu 2016. Both play their first rounds on Tuesday and will have to make quick adjustments, going from indoors to outdoors and getting used to brand new conditions. The abrupt switch, including a three-hour time difference, can make them easy prey for their opponents with Khachanov facing Uzbekistan’s Denis Istomin and Pouille taking on former top-10 player, Latvian qualifier Ernests Gulbis.
SPANISH (MINI) SLUMP
No. 3 seed Roberto Bautista Agut won the Auckland title, defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the final, in the second week of January and hasn’t won a match since. He came to Dubai on a three-match losing streak but has a style suited to these courts, where he made the quarter-finals in 2016.
The world No. 23 finally stopped the bleeding on Monday as he defeated Florian Mayer 6-3, 6-4 to reach the second round. Can he redeem his recent form by going all the way in Dubai this week?
There are six Frenchmen in the main draw, which according to the ATP is a tournament high. Pouille, Richard Gasquet, Benoit Paire, Pierre-Hugues Herbert and qualifiers Gleb Sakharov and Quentin Halys. The last Frenchman to win the Dubai title was Fabrico Santoro in 2002. Santoro is here in the Emirates, coaching Gasquet. Will the student emulate his teacher?
YOUNG GUNS ON THE RISE
Greek world No. 82 Stefanos Tsitsipas is the youngest in the draw, aged 19. The Next Gen star, who was handed a wildcard, claimed just his second main draw match win at an ATP 500-level or higher event on Monday by overcoming Kazakhstan’s Mikhail Kukushkin 6-2, 6-7 (5), 6-3. Tsitsipas made the quarter-finals in Doha (ATP 250 event) as a qualifier at the start of the year and reached the semis in Antwerp, also as a qualifier, end of last season.
Keep an eye out as well for 21-year-olds Borna Coric, who opens against Gasquet, and Khachanov.
DIMITROV AND HIS TOP BILLING
As the only top-10 player in the draw, it goes without saying that Dimitrov is considered the favourite for the title. Since he won the ATP Finals last November – his biggest trophy to date – Dimitrov has been fairly consistent, amassing a 10-3 win-loss record in 2018 that included semis in Brisbane, quarters in the Australian Open and a runner-up showing in Rotterdam. He is recovering from a cold and had a shoulder injury in Melbourne that forced him out of Sofia earlier this month. If he’s healthy, Dubai could be his first title triumph of the season.
Since he didn’t play a tournament this time last year, the Bulgarian stands to gain a full 500 points if he wins the trophy this week, which could see him return to the No. 3 spot.
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