The end of December is a festive season for everyone around the globe but for tennis players, it’s the time of the year where they wrap up their preseason training blocks, pack their bags and get ready to get back to work.
For Abu Dhabi, this period sees the emirate welcome some of the world’s best players to the courts of Zayed Sports City for the annual Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
A marquee lineup features in this weekend’s 11th edition of the tournament, which will witness the return of superstars like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, and the debut of others like Venus Williams and Karen Khachanov.
Here are some of the main storylines surrounding the players that will light up the UAE capital from December 27-29, as they prepare for the 2019 tennis season.
SERENA’S FIRST APPEARANCE SINCE US OPEN
The 37-year-old Serena will continue her search for an all-time record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title in 2019 and will once again grace the stadium at the International Tennis Centre at Zayed Sports City to put the finishing touches to her game ahead of the New Year.
A mother to 16-month old daughter Olympia, Serena returned to the tennis tour from maternity leave last March at Indian Wells and has since risen to 16 in the world rankings. She contested just seven events in 2018, reaching two Grand Slam finals in the process, at Wimbledon and the US Open.
The American’s US Open ended in controversy as she had a standoff with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who gave her a game penalty during her final defeat to Naomi Osaka. Serena accused Ramos of sexism and has not played a tournament since.
Abu Dhabi will be Serena’s first on-court appearance since New York and she’ll be taking on her sister Venus on Thursday (20:00 local time).
Can Serena tie Margaret Court’s record in 2019? How much will she play throughout the season? Does she regret any of her actions during that infamous final? Those are just some of the burning questions surrounding her return to action.
The world No. 2, who lifted the trophy in Abu Dhabi on four previous occasions, shut down his 2018 season early due to injury concerns. Nadal retired from matches at two of the four Grand Slams in 2018, suffering from a psoas injury at the Australian Open, and knee problems at the US Open. He also underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his ankle to remove an intra-articular loose body in November.
The Spaniard is set to make his first appearance since his US Open semi-final retirement against Juan Marti del Potro in the UAE capital this weekend, opening his campaign against either Kevin Anderson or Chung Hyeon on Friday.
Once again, one of the biggest challenges facing Nadal in 2019 will be his fitness. His issues this year didn’t stop him from winning a 17th major last June though, where he picked up a record-extending 11th French Open crown.
The second half of the 2018 season saw Novak Djokovic recapture his form and add two more majors to his tally, which has now hit 14. After undergoing elbow surgery in February and dropping to as low as 22 in May, the Serb got back to the top of the rankings and lost just three matches since June. He’ll be looking to carry his momentum into 2019 and could become the most successful man in Australian Open history if he manages to win a seventh Melbourne title next month.
Djokovic faces either Khachanov or Dominic Thiem in his Abu Dhabi opener on Friday.
View this post on Instagram
A post shared by Novak Djokovic (@djokernole) on
VENUS SANS WITT
Following a successful 2017, which she ended as the WTA’s prize money leader, thanks to her two runner-up showings at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Venus had a rough 2018 and slipped to No. 38 in the rankings. She ended her 11-year collaboration with her coach David Witt during the offseason and has yet to announce his replacement. The 38-year-old hasn’t played since a lopsided US Open third round defeat to her sister Serena on August 31.
The Williams Sisters are on their way to Abu Dhabi. (from Venus’ Instastory) 😍😀 pic.twitter.com/nwjPPnk0c2
— LaWanda (@lawanda50) December 26, 2018
World No. 8 Dominic Thiem will be hoping he can go one step further in 2019 and secure a first major after losing the Roland Garros final to Nadal last June. The Austrian, who takes on Khachanov in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, is in search of a traveling coach after parting ways with Galo Blanco (who took up a new position with Kosmos Tennis) to help him alongside his main coach Gunter Bresnik.
“Gunter will always be the main person and if I’m looking for a second coach who is giving me company at some tournaments, I’ve tried it, he was a player, that’s pretty important, and maybe had a similar game to me and he can improve me in some parts. But it can be basically anybody, I’m not that difficult,” Thiem told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.
NEW TERRITORY FOR KHACHANOV
A stunning run to the Paris Masters title at the end of the 2018 season helped Khachanov reach a career-high ranking of No. 11. The 22-year-old Russian defeated four top-10 opponents, including Djokovic, en route to his first Masters 1000 trophy and takes lots of self belief from his triumph over the Serb.
“Of course I can take something from that, that brought me to No. 11 in the world. But this is a new season, you have to start from zero like everybody and you have to again prove that you are good and you have to get these results. Of course I’m feeling confident right now but everything starts from zero,” said Khachanov on Wednesday.
On Thursday, Khachanov faces Thiem, who was not surprised by his rival’s run in Paris.
“For me it was only a question of time until he really made his breakthrough because he has no weaknesses actually, he is a big tall player with very fast and powerful strokes. I think he was achieving a little bit too little all year and then he finished as No. 11, which is amazing, he won the Masters 1000, that’s where he belongs I think, and I’m almost 100 per cent sure that during 2019 we’ll see him in the top-10,” Thiem said of Khachanov.
CHUNG’S AUSSIE CHALLENGE
South Korea’s Chung Hyeon made waves last January when he reached the Australian Open semis, taking out Djokovic along the way. He followed that up with back-to-back quarter-finals appearances in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami but injuries interrupted his momentum and he had to miss two and a half months of action, which meant he skipped the French Open and Wimbledon. The 22-year-old says staying healthy is his main priority for 2019. He will face a tough test in Melbourne next month as he attempts to defend his semi-final points there.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 26, 2018
ANDERSON’S TITLE DEFENCE
Anderson started his last season by winning the MWTC title in Abu Dhabi which set the tone for his most successful year to date. The South African hit a career-high ranking of No. 5 in July, after reaching the final at Wimbledon, where he came back from two sets down to defeat Federer en route. He also won the New York Open and the Erste Bank Open in Vienna in 2018 and qualified for his first ATP Finals. He had a shorter than usual offseason as a result but says he’s feeling ready for his title defence in the capital.
“The biggest thing was to recover and get the body healthy and everything feels really good. There’s always a few things you’re working on, on the court, movement, returns and some stuff at the net but all in all things are feeling really good and I’m really excited to get on the court this week,” he said of what he worked on the most during his preseason training block.
Kevin Anderson admits it’s “weird” having a different set of rules for the final set at each of the four Grand Slams but believes playing a first-to-10 points tiebreak at the Australian Open won’t be that different to contesting a regular seven-point one.
The Australian Open announced recently that a final-set tiebreak will be introduced to the 2019 edition in an effort to limit the length of matches.
But instead of implementing a regular first-to-seven points tiebreak, the Melbourne showpiece have decided on a first-to-10 points format, to be played at 6-all in the final set.
The news came on the heels of Wimbledon’s announcement earlier this year regarding the introduction of final-set tiebreaks to be contested at 12-all in the fifth set for men’s matches and third set for the women.
The US Open has a regular final-set tiebreak played at 6-all, while the French Open follows a win-by-two-games format for the final sets of its matches.
The latest changes mean that players will have to adapt playing under different final set rules at each of the four majors.
“It is kind of weird, and interesting I guess. Each one is different,” sixth-ranked Anderson told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday ahead of the start of his title defence at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC).
“I’m sure French Open will change it at some point in time. And it will be interesting to see how progress is the next few years. They’re just trying to be a bit unique in their own ways when it comes to what they’re doing in the fifth-setters but I don’t think it’s going to make that big of a difference as long as it’s not an endless [set], where it keeps going on and on.”
The Australian Open said the decision to opt for a 10-point tiebreak was based on “the most extensive consultation in the tournament’s history”.
“We went with a 10-point tiebreak at six-games-all in the final set to ensure the fans still get a special finale to these often epic contests, with the longer tiebreak still then allowing for that one final twist or change of momentum in the contest. This longer tiebreak also can lessen some of the serving dominance that can prevail in the shorter tiebreak,” explained Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley.
Anderson doesn’t think the change in length of the tiebreak will affect the players much.
“At the end of the day they’re realising that just having a full long fifth set is not the ideal situation and it just seems like they maybe just trying to be a little bit different. Whether it’s 10 or seven I don’t think makes any difference at all,” said the South African.
“I think a normal tiebreaker would have been fine but I think it’s a little interesting take of making it first to 10. Just like Wimbledon going to 12-all as opposed to just keeping it at 6-all, I think it would have been fine just having it in the normal set-up but I think it’s still a good step forward reducing the long five-setters.”
World No. 11 Karen Khachanov, who makes his MWTC debut against Dominic Thiem on Thursday, also weighed in on the subject.
“It’s a little bit different… that they cannot maybe negotiate and make one rule for all the tournaments but on the other side it makes a little bit of difference between all of them so we have to try to adjust how to play,” said the Russian.
“I don’t know if it’s easier or tougher because at the end you’re playing with an opponent, you don’t play just alone on the court. He has the same conditions, he has the same rules, so it’s the same for both guys, so it doesn’t matter if it’s up to seven or up to 10 or up to five, it will be the same thing.”
The 11th edition of the MWTC kicks off with three matches on Thursday.
4pm (local time): Kevin Anderson v Chung Hyeon
6pm: Dominic Thiem v Karen Khachanov
8pm: Serena Williams v Venus Williams
A sun-kissed and admittedly-exhausted Stefanos Tsitsipas is sat on the terrace of a sports café overlooking a small marina of boats at JA The Resort in Jebel Ali.
The 20-year-old is in Dubai completing the final stretch of his preseason training before he flies to Perth next week to represent Greece alongside Maria Sakkari in the Hopman Cup.
He’s been working six-day weeks, putting in four sessions a day (two on the tennis court and two in the gym) to get ready for the fast-approaching new season. It’s his day off and he has a couple of media commitments before he hits the squash courts at the resort for a fun duel with his fitness trainer Frederic Lefebvre, who formerly worked with Serena Williams and Jeremy Chardy among others.
Voted the ATP’s Most Improved Player of 2018, Tsitsipas would be forgiven if he is still taking stock of what he managed to achieve over the past 12 months. He rocketed from 91 in the rankings last January to his current position of No. 15, claiming his first career title in Stockholm in the process, finishing runner-up in Barcelona and the Masters 1000 event in Canada, and reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon.
In Canada, he became the youngest player to defeat four top-10 players in a row at a single tournament. He turned 20 the day of his final defeat there to Rafael Nadal, wrapping up a statement week that solidified his position as one of the most dangerous young guns on tour. He concluded 2018 by going undefeated at the Next Gen Finals in Milan, clinching the title along with a $407,000 cheque.
Just 18 months ago, Tsitsipas was ranked outside the top-200. Now he is the youngest player in the top-20. The speed of his rise is not lost on him but he sounds confident when he discusses it.
“I was aware of what was going on, but to be honest with you, I don’t know, I wouldn’t have imagined such a good season like this year. I played incredible tennis, I played tennis out of my comfort zone, I did things even myself I was actually surprised with. But it’s all because of the hard work I’ve been doing,” Tsitsipas told Sport360.
Asked to elaborate on what exactly constitutes playing out of his comfort zone, he added: “Playing big points in tense situations, playing under pressure, playing your best tennis under pressure, saving break points, saving match points, all of this stuff is playing out of your comfort zone.”
That match toughness was on full display at several moments throughout the year and Lefebvre considers it one of Tsitsipas’ greatest assets.
“His best quality is that he is a warrior on the court. He is pretty natural. At 17, 18 he understood what he had to do and he took it seriously,” said the Frenchman.
Tsitsipas agrees with his physical trainer and feels the biggest progress he made in 2018 was in the mental department.
“Psychologically and mentally I would say. I’ve become tough, I’ve become durable. I think I’m not breaking that easy in tough situations, I’m able to keep my attitude right most of the time. I’m actually aggressive, I never become passive or defensive when the match gets tense. I always keep my foot on the gas pedal and not back down,” Tsitsipas explains.
Alongside Lefebvre in Dubai, Tsitsipas is also joined by his father and coach, Apostolos, and his younger brother Petros, who occasionally acts as his hitting partner, and at 18, has just started playing Futures events on the professional circuit.
Of the many ATP players currently in the emirate preparing for 2019, Tsitsipas has been practicing with Frenchman Lucas Pouille the most, but he also has a planned session with Roger Federer early next week.
Tsitsipas grew up idolising Federer and is thrilled to get the opportunity to practice with the 20-time Grand Slam champion.
He’s not fazed by the occasion though.
“It’s all part of my progression. I deserve to be here, there was a lot of hard work to get here and now I guess it’s my turn to shine,” he simply states.
For many players on tour, tennis is a family affair, and Tsitsipas is no different. Both his parents played tennis, and it’s actually his mother, Julia Apostoli-Salnikova, who has more experience on the professional tour, where she was ranked in the top-200 in the early ‘90s.
Having a father as your coach can often come with its own set of complications but Tsitsipas doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s not complicated, it’s much simpler than it looks like. But having him as a coach was the best thing that ever happened to my career,” he says of Apostolos, his father.
There is so much to discover in Dubai. pic.twitter.com/A78ewIWxoM— Stefanos Tsitsipas (@StefTsitsipas) December 20, 2018
Of the younger crew climbing up the tennis ranks at the moment, Tsitsipas often stands out. While others sit at their hotel rooms playing video games to blow off steam, Tsitsipas spends his time taking photographs on the streets of the many cities he visits throughout the year – he has an alternative Instagram account with the handle ‘stevethehawk’ to showcase his amateur photography – and films and edits travel vlogs for his Youtube channel.
He laments the fact that he has limited time to pursue his other interests but is happy to spend 30 hours editing one vlog, spread out over several days due to his packed schedule.
“But I understand that tennis is my priority at the moment, it’s my job, it’s what I’m getting paid to do and I’m grateful. I love tennis, I love hitting a fuzzy yellow ball every day of my life. It’s what I decided that I want to do in my life and I never regret the decision that I took,” he assures.
Tsitsipas uses his other interests as an outlet, and while he seems sociable, he also values his alone time and credits a solo trip he took to the Caribbean earlier this year for his improved results from the Spring onwards.
“I didn’t start the year very well, I started so and so. I wasn’t doing that well from January until March I think. And then I had a great run in Barcelona, which also gave me confidence in believing in myself a little bit more. Things seemed to kind of change after that. I found my rhythm, I found my confidence on the court, I knew who I actually was. I think the vacation I took going alone, by myself to the British Virgin Islands, helped me to reboot a little bit, get to understand myself a little bit better. I think it was a good thing that I did from myself,” says Tsitsipas.
The tennis calendar has been a hot topic of conversation for many years with players complaining about the length of the season, the high number of mandatory tournaments they have to play. Tsitsipas contested a whopping number of 32 events in 2018 (including Challengers and the Next Gen Finals) and is likely to start his 2019 season by playing nearly eight weeks in a row. He admits that the one thing he would change about tennis would be the calendar.
“The tour is great. I like competing but sometimes it feels like there is a lot of stress and all that stress, week by week, it’s really tough to handle sometimes,” he confessed.
“I wish there was maybe smarter scheduling, that would be – I’m sure if I go higher in the future with my ranking and everything, I think the schedule will be much more different than it is right now so I won’t have to worry about that. Scheduling sometimes is too much.
“I think I played the most tournaments of all the other players this year but still it was a lot of traveling this year.
“The rules – I actually enjoyed the Next Gen Finals, I was the winner, but still I enjoyed it although it was very stressful in the beginning to deal with it, I found it very stressful with the rules and everything. But I don’t know it felt more exciting to be out on the court during the Next Gen Finals week than any other week that I played because there was so much adrenaline in every match that I played. I never felt so much energy and so much excitement on the tennis court ever before, I guess it was because of the people who were there cheering for me, or the stadium, but it was great atmosphere overall.”
Another thing he wishes was a bit different on the circuit is the interaction between the players. Having spent his first full year on tour in 2018, I ask him whether he’s made any new friends in the locker room or whether it’s difficult befriending your rivals.
“I don’t think it’s difficult. I just think that everybody is on their phones nowadays so it’s tough to make friends like this,” he says with a smile.
“I wish people were a bit more social on the tour, not many people prefer to be that social and have friends but I do understand that. But I do have some friends, I’m very close with Marcos Baghdatis, some doubles players, people who speak the same language. Denis Istomin is also a very good friend.”
Looking ahead to next year, Tsitsipas has set himself some high targets and isn’t shying away from sharing them.
“My goals for next year is to play semis in a Grand Slam, win a Masters 1000 tournament, break into the top-10 and be in the ATP Finals,” he declares. “Those are four of the goals I’ve set for next season. I think they’re achievable. I’ve shown some good tennis this year. I think my level is not far from winning a Masters 1000, being among the top-five or six of the ATP rankings, in the Grand Slams playing semis or quarter-finals, or maybe even doing much better than that.
“For sure I feel like I have the level. It’s all about time, all about patience and waiting for your turn.”
He also points out the areas of his game he hopes to develop the most.
“I would say to be more aggressive on the court. To play a more aggressive game style than I’m playing at the moment. I do play aggressive but I believe with my height, with my power, with my abilities I can be even more aggressive, I can take the ball earlier, approach the net, feel a bit more comfortable with my volleys and coming in front. And to be a bit more consistent with my serve,” he says.
VOLLEYS WITH STEFANOS
Karen Khachanov finished the year by beating four top-10 players en route to the Paris Masters final. Alexander Zverev won the ATP Finals. Do the achievements of other young players on tour push you to do better?
I think there is motivation. Everybody wants to do their best, everybody wants to surpass the other one, I think it’s normal, it’s competition, it’s what we’re meant to do, it’s our sport, it’s our natural approach to things. We’re competitive most of us, and I’m competitive myself. I think having the young generation of players behind me or even in front of me kind of pushes me a little bit more.
Were you surprised that Zverev won in London?
Not really. He’s a great player, I was not surprised that he won the Nitto Finals. I think he deserved it, he showed a great year, 2018 was a really good year for him. He has beaten those players before so that’s why I wasn’t surprised.
Which moments this year do you feel made the biggest difference for you?
I had many moments. One moment that stood out was the round of 16 at Wimbledon, which gave me a bit of confidence I can say. Also playing semis in Washington because that tournament I felt like I played well but I didn’t really play my best tennis yet. But I was surprised that I did semis in a 500 event not playing my best tennis. And then I managed to pull out my best game the next week in Toronto which I was very happy with because it was a very important tournament, many points there, and I was very proud of myself to be the first [youngest] male player to beat four top-10 players in single tournament, that was stunning.
If you had to pick, which Grand Slam do you think would be your best shot at your first major title?
I would say Wimbledon and Australian Open, let’s not forget the Greek fans.
As a Greek, were you inspired by Cyprus’ Baghdatis growing up?
He was my idol growing up, I even told him when I went for dinner with him the other day during my vacation in Limassol. I couldn’t hide it. He was my idol growing up after Federer. Federer was my idol all my life, Baghdatis came always second, because I guess of my style of play and everything. But no, I do respect Marcos, his career is still great and will always be respected because he came from a tiny country and created history himself. That was very inspiring to see, I always wanted to follow in his footsteps and achieve things that he achieved in tennis. The style he played was so enjoyable to watch on TV.