Stan Wawrinka will begin his title defence in Dubai on Tuesday against Bosnian Damir Dzumhur after taking a month off to heal the knee injury that hampered him at the Australian Open.
The second-seeded Swiss lost to Roger Federer in the semi-finals in Melbourne last month and then pulled out of the Rotterdam Open two weeks ago due to his knee problems.
Wawrinka only returned back to the court to practice last week but feels ready for his opener against the 24-year-old Dzumhur.
“I’m happy to be back. For sure I was out of competition for a lot of time, it wasn’t the best, but I needed time to feel better again physically,” said the 31-year-old Wawrinka, who beat Marcos Baghdatis last year in the Dubai final to win the trophy.
“After one month you also have to wait and see how the knee is going to react in matches at a high level. But in general I think my last few days have been okay.”
Wawrinka, a three-time grand slam champion, has reached the last-four in the two tournaments he has contested so far this season, in Brisbane and the Australian Open, and he feels satisfied with his game.
Considered a late-bloomer, Wawrinka won his first major at 28 in Melbourne, then added the French Open the following year, before capturing the US Open last fall.
Wimbledon is the only grand slam missing from his trophy cabinet and it is a tournament where he has yet to find his best game.
Is completing the career Grand Slam a priority for Wawrinka?
“It’s not a goal. It’s already amazing to have won three different grand slams, that’s something very special,” said Wawrinka.
“Every year I try my best at Wimbledon, in the grass court season so far I haven’t played as good as I have on the rest of the surfaces but I’m still pushing for finding my best game on that surface so we’ll see this year.”
Last year, Wawrinka enlisted the help of former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek to work alongside his full-time coach Magnus Norman during the grass season in order to improve on his form on the surface.
The partnership lasted just a few weeks and Krajicek is now working with Milos Raonic and his other coach Riccardo Piatti.
Asked if he’s considering to add a second coach in the future, Wawrinka said: “I think it was great with Richard there. I think it was also good because the idea came with Magnus, so we wanted both of them together just to sit, to have a different vision of my game, to see what we can improve and all.
“If that’s going to happen again, I honestly don’t know. Right now we’re not talking about it yet but maybe…”
Wawrinka has hit the practice courts with Federer in Dubai before the tournament started and he praised his fellow Swiss on his remarkable Australian Open triumph.
“I watched all of the final, like everybody. It was amazing, amazing to see them playing in the final again. It’s always a special match when Roger and Rafa (Nadal) play each other because they played each other so many times. I think the level was really good, the way Roger came back in the fifth was something special,” said Wawrinka.
What was the reaction like in Switzerland?
“Same as the rest of the world, everybody was happy for Roger,” replied Wawrinka.
“After six months out it’s something very impressive to win a grand slam in your first tournament back.”
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.