Roger Federer bid for a 100th career title will start with a first-round clash against Philipp Kohlschreiber at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships this week.
The Swiss seven-time Dubai champion is back in the Emirates for the first time since 2017, and is looking to lift his first trophy here since 2015.
Here are the main talking points surrounding the men’s draw in Dubai.
TOUGH PATH TO 100
If Federer does indeed secure his 100th title in Dubai, he may have to navigate a tough path to do it. His road to the dhow boat trophy could look like this: R1 Kohlschreiber, R2 Fernando Verdasco, QF Milos Raonic, SF Karen Khachanov/Borna Coric, F Stefanos Tsitsipas/Kei Nishikori/Marin Cilic.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 22, 2019
YOUNG GUNS IN FULL FORCE
A quartet of the best 23-and-under players are in contention this week in the form of fourth-seeded Khachanov, fifth-seeded Tsitsipas, sixth-seeded Coric and eighth-seeded Daniil Medvedev. Expect them to cause some serious trouble for the veterans at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium.
A few players will be making their maiden appearances in Dubai, including Nishikori and Raonic, who have surprisingly never played here before. Cilic will be making his first showing since 2010.
ROUND ONES TO WATCH
Third-seeded Cilic has a tricky opener against Frenchman Gael Monfils, who won Rotterdam earlier this month while Federer has a tough challenge against Kohlschreiber, whom he practiced with here just two days ago. Wildcards Mohamed Safwat and Marcos Baghdatis will face off in what is expected to be a loud, well-attended affair, with both of them popular figures in Dubai, while Khachanov has a challenging start against Beijing champion Nikoloz Basilashvili. Top-seeded Nishikori got the talented but erratic Benoit Paire as his opener.
Cilic jokes: Let’s repeat the draw 😂
Faces Monfils in R1.#DDFTennis
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 23, 2019
UNSEEDED PLAYERS TO WATCH
World No. 23 Monfils will have many eyes on him in his first round against Cilic, while two-time Dubai finalist Tomas Berdych, who is up to 71 in the world following a long back injury lay-off. The Czech has been in fine form so far this season, amassing an 11-4 win-loss record, that includes a final showing in Doha, fourth round at the Australian Open, and semis in Montpellier. Defending champion Roberto Bautista Agut is also one to watch. The Spaniard reached his first Grand Slam quarter-final in Melbourne last month and started 2019 by lifting the trophy in Doha.
When Petra Kvitova is told that it’s still February yet she has already reached three finals in 2019, the Czech world No. 3 smiles and simply says: “That’s nice”.
“It’s a bit weird, to be honest,” she continued, addressing reporters after securing a spot in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships final with a hard-fought 3-6, 6-2, 6-4 win over Hsieh Su-Wei on Friday.
“I didn’t really expect anything like that. Well, to be honest, I didn’t expect anything, which I already achieved this year. For me, everything is just bonus. The tennis, it’s a bit like escape this week. This is unbelievable to be in the final when I’m escaping from something. Yeah, very interesting.”
What Kvitova means by ‘escaping’ is the fact that she arrived to Dubai so mentally and emotionally fatigued that she told WTA Insider that the first five weeks of the season – in which she won Sydney and made the Australian Open final back-to-back – were a “crushing time” for her and “I’m not feeling really fresh, to be honest”.
After winning 11 matches in a row, Kvitova fell to Naomi Osaka in the Melbourne final before flying home to pick up her passport with the Russian visa. She flew to St. Petersburg, where she lost in her second match, then went to Monaco, followed by the Czech Republic, where she had to testify in court against the man who attacked her with a knife in her apartment in December 2017.
The gruelling start to the year has understandably taken an emotional toll on Kvitova, but she has still managed to find her fighting spirit in Dubai, battling through three three-setters so far this week, en route to the final.
On Saturday, she takes on 21-year-old Swiss Belinda Bencic, who has also been at her fighting best this week in the Emirates.
It’s a rematch of their Australian Open third round encounter, which Kvitova won 6-1, 6-4.
“The score looked a little bit easy, but it wasn’t easy at all,” said Kvitova of her victory over Bencic in Melbourne.
“I saw her playing some matches. She’s really on fire, playing really well. I think the surface suits her game, as well. I think it’s pretty fast. That’s what she likes to play.”
Kvitova did not drop a set on her way to the Australian Open final last month, and she followed her success over Bencic with a 6-2, 6-1 rout of American teen Amanda Anisimova, who later posted a message on her Instagram saying she given “a lesson” on court that day from the Czech lefty.
Bencic commented on the photo saying, “Welcome to the club” along with the hash-tag “#petrasvictims”.
The young Swiss will be looking to avoid a similar fate in her rematch with Kvitova in Dubai on Saturday.
“There she was on the roll. I mean, Anisimova was playing amazing. Petra crushed all of us. We were trying so hard. It was 6-2, 6-1, then 6-3, 6-1, until the final,” Bencic said after her semi-final win over Elina Svitolina in Dubai on Friday.
“That’s why I said it. Yeah, of course she’s in great form. Maybe this tournament I’m also in great form. It will be a tough final. The final is always two great players. I’m very happy to play her. Yeah, we’ll see. Hopefully I will not be Petra’s victim.”
Bencic has taken out three top-eight seeds back-to-back this week: Aryna Sabalenka (No. 8), Simona Halep (No. 3) and Svitolina (No. 6).
The former world No. 7 ended Svitolina’s 12-match winning streak in Dubai with a 6-2, 3-6, 7-6(3) triumph, to reach her biggest final since Toronto 2015.
Bencic broke Svitolina when the Ukrainian two-time defending champion was serving for the match at 5-4 in the final set. And even though Svitolina saved three match points two games later, she succumbed to Bencic in the tiebreak, seeing her bid for an unprecedented Dubai three-peat come to an end.
“I think from 3-5 [in the final set], I just completely zoomed out. I think I was playing the same, even though I lost the match points. Somehow I was still focused, I don’t know why,” said the 45th-ranked Bencic.
“I had a big chance on the first match point. I went for too much. I think I did the right thing. I was doing the right thing. Basically I stayed in the zone, even in tiebreak.
“I was barely breathing, just playing automatic. You are not thinking any more. It’s where the instincts just guide you through it.”
When Belinda Bencic called her father and coach Ivan for an on-court coaching session during her tough three-set win over Simona Halep in the Dubai quarter-finals on Thursday, he gave her some solid advice.
“He told me one good thing. It was: ‘Do you realise who do you even play, where you play? Be a little bit grateful for that’,” revealed the 21-year-old Bencic.
His words did the trick. Bencic rallied from a set down to defeat the second-ranked Halep 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 and reach her biggest semi-final in three years.
Exactly three years ago, Bencic was coming off of a final appearance at the Premier event in St. Petersburg and was ranked a career-high No. 7 at the tender age of 18.
When she made her top-10 debut in February 2016, Bencic was the youngest to do so since 2009 and she was tipped by many to become the next big star of the WTA. Injuries derailed her career though, and a left wrist surgery kept her out of the tour for five months in 2017.
Ranked No. 45 this week, Bencic posted the eighth top-five victory of her career when she dispatched a fatigued Halep, who was contesting her ninth match in 13 days.
When Bencic returned from her injury, she started off by playing lower-tier tournaments on the ITF circuit, instead of using her protected ranking to enter WTA events right away. She worked her way up, building confidence along the way, and says she never lost faith in her abilities.
She saved six match points on Wednesday night against world No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka before pulling off the upset over Halep less than 24 hours later.
“It feels great. I’m just really happy. I’m back. I knew it was still in me, even after the injuries. You cannot just come back like this and play [snapping fingers]. Otherwise, it wouldn’t show how good tennis is,” Bencic told reporters in Dubai on Thursday.
“Players are playing two, three years constantly on the level, they’re playing semi-finals, finals. You cannot just expect to be back after the injury and play like this.
“I had to work my way back. I knew it was in me, but I’m happy that I could finally show it.”
Simona Halep played 9 matches in 13 days. She ran out of gas today against a brilliant Belinda Bencic.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 21, 2019
Earlier this month, Halep won two Fed Cup matches to help Romania reach the semi-finals with victory over the Czechs in Ostrava then flew straight to Doha and reached the final there before coming to Dubai. She admits she ran out of gas against Bencic, and could feel some pain in her Achilles’.
“The body felt that it’s tired. Even if I was not giving up, I felt like I don’t have enough to win,” confessed Halep after he quarter-final defeat to Bencic. “But I played till the end. I tried just to stay there no matter the result.”
Bencic next takes on two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina, who extended her undefeated run in Dubai to 12 straight matches with a 6-2, 6-3 success over Carla Suarez Navarro.
The other semi-final on Friday will see No. 2 seed Petra Kvitova take on the magical Hsieh Su-Wei, who came back from 1-5 down in the final set to upset No. 4 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-4, 1-6, 7-5.