Andy Murray is bracing himself for a tricky opener in Dubai today where he takes on Arab No1 Malek Jaziri for the first time.
The world No1 made his first competitive appearance since his Australian Open fourth round exit last month yesterday in doubles, losing 6-1, 7-6 (2) alongside Nenad Zimonjic to Dan Evans and Gilles Muller.
He makes his singles return tonight against Tunisia’s Jaziri, who is the highest-ranked Arab No51 in the world.
“I know Malek fairly well,” Murray told reporters in Dubai.
“I’ve never played with him and I’ve never practiced with him. But I’ve seen him play, he’s very talented. He plays with a lot of slice backhands, quite aggressive on the forehand. He’s played this event on a number of years, I think he quite likes the conditions here.”
Jaziri gets strong support in the UAE from the Arab contingency residing here and previously reached the quarter-finals in Dubai in 2014. The 33-year-old has started the year well, making the third round at the Australian Open, where he lost to Murray’s conqueror, Mischa Zverev.
“I think it’s a good match for me. Every year I play the No1 here in Dubai, I played Federer, I played Novak and now Murray… so it’s a good opportunity. I’m playing my best game ranking right now, I’m No47 in the world (down to 51 yesterday). I’ll prepare with my coach and we’ll see how it goes,” Jaziri told Sport360.
One player who is not focused on his ranking too much is Murray. The top seed is entering a stretch of tournaments where he is only defending 90 points until Monte Carlo in April and can widen the gap between himself and second-ranked Novak Djokovic but Murray insists keeping the No1 spot is not his top priority.
“I don’t need to stay at No1,” said the 29-year-old Brit.
“Nothing bad happens if I fall to No2. My life is okay, no one dies, it’s all good. But I want to try and stay there, I’m motivated to try and do that. The way that the end of last season worked, I played so much tennis – I don’t think that’s necessarily a positive thing.
“If I could go back to last year, ideally I would have played better in the beginning part of the year in Indian Wells and Miami, that could have helped me later in the season. I want to try and play again good tennis at all of the events and not sort of have any drop-offs, which I did last year.
“That was between the Aussie Open and Monte Carlo, I won two matches on the tour in a good two and a half month period and I want to avoid that this year.”
The ATP Tour is in town for a 25th consecutive season and the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships organisers are rightfully celebrating.
DDF have brought world-class tennis to the Emirates for a quarter of a century and in the process, have forever changed the sporting landscape in the UAE.
In a city that hosts countless sport and entertainment events throughout the year, the Dubai tennis tournament is a class apart.
It’s one of the best-attended live sports events taking place in the emirate, usually selling out within an hour from getting released.
Spending a night session at centre court at the Aviation Club has become part of this city’s culture and with the Irish Village and other restaurants and bars surrounding the stadium, the atmosphere is truly unrivalled.
Many of the players who took part in the early years of the DDF tournament recall how surprising it was to see an event pop up in the Middle East back in 1993.
There was, understandably, lots of scepticism, but those curious enough put it on their calendar and kept coming back year after year, telling their rivals and friends that they should join them.
It was precisely what the rulers of the UAE and the DDF set out to achieve from the start – creating a top-notch tennis tournament to place the country on the global sports map and become a popular spot on the tour for years to come.
The tournament has come a long way since its inception and the evolution has been remarkable.
From barely having one top-20 player in the first edition, they constantly bring five or six of the world’s top-10 now. From a scaffolding purpose-built stadium they started with, they now have the beautiful 5,000-seater centre court Monday.
A few years ago, DDF built an on-site five-star hotel, the Jumeirah Creekside, to host the players and invited media which made the tournament even more comfortable and convenient.
The best part of the venue is that in the über-modern, fast-developing, extreme-loving Dubai, the Aviation Club has maintained its cosy feel and never strayed away from its origins.
The whole place is as compact as a tennis club can get, the cobblestone surrounding centre court, the pond out by the Irish Village, and even the swan and ducks roaming the grounds… it all pays homage to a simpler, throwback version of Dubai.
While the tournament never resulted in a local talent emerging on the professional scene, it has undoubtedly spread the tennis culture, at least as a recreational activity, or simply from a viewing perspective.
There are the regular fans we see in the stands every single year, and ones who travel from across the globe to visit the city and get to watch the likes of Roger Federer up close in a stadium that literally has no bad seats.
Twenty five years is a massive accomplishment, especially when we see many tournaments worldwide struggling to stay afloat, and switching cities due to financial constraints.
The Dubai tournament also played an important role within the region as a whole, because it gave Arabs from neighboring countries the opportunity to hop on a short flight and witness live professional tennis for the first time.
It meant a lot for the Arab players too. People like Selima Sfar of Tunisia and Younes El Aynaoui of Morocco felt special support when they competed in Dubai and enjoyed some of their best results here.
The real hope now is for this tournament to inspire a young Emirati to take up the sport, one day pursue it professionally. and eventually breakthrough on the tour. That will be the ultimate achievement.
Gael Monfils’ only previous visit to Dubai resulted in an opening round exit to Tomas Berdych and the Frenchman is now back in the city for the first time since 2008, looking to erase that memory and live up to his No4 seeding.
The ever-entertaining 30-year-old faces 199th-ranked Egyptian wildcard Mohamed Safwat in the first round on Monday night and insists he is not taking anything for granted.
“I lost to Tomas Berdych here in the first round. It was a tough draw. I’m not confident to make the first one because every match is tough. I’m just confident to be 100 per cent,” Monfils told reporters in Dubai on Sunday.
“I know a little bit about Safwat, I saw him play a couple of times. I know how he’s playing. I saw him in Doha, I saw him a little bit around…”
Monfils ended last season ranked No6 in the world after making the US Open semi-finals – his first grand slam semi in eight years – and picking up a title in Washington.
He has now dropped to No12 in the world but has shown solid form in the two tournaments he has contested to far this season, at the Australian Open, where he lost to Rafael Nadal in the fourth round, and in Marseille, where he reached the quarters before exiting to Richard Gasquet.
He made his first appearance at the ATP World Tour Finals in November, and is hoping he can carry the consistency he showed last season into this year.
“We never know why but I guess it was I had confidence early in the season. We worked hard, we changed a lot of things and maybe that was the benefit,” Monfils says of the reasons behind the progress he made last season.
“My goals are pretty much the same, to play with a lot of consistency, try to catch a big title at the end.
“We have to keep doing what we’re doing, keep putting in the work, try to add new stuff to still improve, and at the end, most likely was to be as good as we’ve been last year.”
Safwat is playing his first ATP 500-level tournament main draw courtesy of a wildcard from Dubai Duty Free.
He is the second-highest-ranked Arab and is excited to make his Dubai debut against a top player like Monfils.
“I was discussing it me and my coach before the draw. I was expecting Roger Federer honestly (in the first round),” Safwat told Sport360.
“For me, I’m always looking forward to play one of the top guys. It’s really good to see where you are, what do you need to develop, because it’s a very long season – it’s a big tournament, it’s an important tournament for my career, I cannot ignore this; it’s a chance for me to get some points, improve in the ranking, get some confidence, but at the end of the day it’s just one tournament in a long season.
“It’s honestly good to play Monfils, he’s a top-10 player, he can show me where I stand, show me what I need to be there, to be in the top-10. I believe I have my chances, tennis is 50-50 when you go on court.”
Safwat has made a significant step up in the past seven months, walking away from the Futures circuit (the lowest level of tournaments in tennis) to the Challengers, and has even managed to qualify into the main draw in Doha last month.
He says a shift in mentality has helped him overcome his previous insecurities about competing against higher-ranked opponents.
“I feel it’s normal (now to be around top players). That was my main issue years ago, I wasn’t feeling comfortable, I was feeling insecure here, with all the big names, the players… but I’ve been working on this since July,” confessed the 26-year-old.
“I feel like this was the thing that was stopping me from going forward, because I had a good level, I have the tennis to go up, and as soon as I started to change, I started to think differently, I started to really improve mentally, I started to feel more secure, I started to feel I can compete, I started to feel that I can win, to believe more…
“Also I take everything as a lesson. It’s good to play with players who are better than you, to see where you stand, what you need to improve. This is what I realised that every tournament I played since the beginning of the year it taught me something.”