After 10 years on tour, traveling with a large team and competing at the top of the sport, Andy Murray somehow found himself this week in Dubai flying solo and having to book his own practices – something he certainly hasn’t done for many years.
The Scot, who is back at world No. 3 this week, came to the UAE without his coach Amelie Mauresmo, who doesn’t travel with him to all his tournaments, and since he parted ways with Dani Vallverdu end of last year, he no longer has a traveling hitting partner or stand-in coach.
Murray has reiterated since the start of 2015 that he is looking to add a coach to his team to support him in the absence of Mauresmo, but he wasn’t able to decide on a candidate in time for his trip to the emirates.
— kevin mitchell (@kevinmitchell50) February 22, 2015
In the days leading up to his opening round on Tuesday with Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller – a tricky lefty coached by Murray’s good friend Jamie Delgado – Murray has had two different players cancel on him for practice and had to resort to the ATP people on site to help find him someone to hit with.
The two lefties he sought out to prepare for Muller, Spaniards Feliciano Lopez and Fernando Verdasco, had to forgo their practice with Murray on Sunday, the former falling ill and the latter getting held up at the Dubai airport for eight hours.
Murray, who has a 59-18 record against lefties, ended up going through some drills with a Frenchman who coaches here at the Aviation Club.
He’ll be getting some help from Davis Cup captain Leon Smith, who arrived later on Sunday, and is in Dubai keeping an eye on Murray, James Ward and the other Brits in town ahead of next week’s Great Britain-USA tie in Glasgow.
“I’ve spoken to a few people and made some pretty good progress with that (looking for a coach),” said Murray. “Nothing for this week. During Davis Cup we’ll have people around there who can help, that I know very well, and I’ll have Amelie back for Indian Wells.
“In an ideal world it would have been good to have had someone for these last couple of weeks, but that hasn’t been the case.
“Having someone with you, for me anyway, is better.
“If you have a coach around it’s a lot easier to do basket drills or work on specific things. You can get constant feedback with what you’re doing, whereas when you’re on your own if something like that (players canceling on him) happens you have to come up with a training session yourself.
“It’s not perfect and that’s why most players try when they can to travel with a coach.”
Also in action on Tuesday is Novak Djokovic, who begins his quest for a fifth Dubai title against Canadian Vasek Pospisil. The Serb lost his opening doubles match alongside his compatriot, teenager Laslo Djere, to Rohan Bopanna and Daniel Nestor 6-2, 7-5 yesterday.
Djokovic comes to the Dubai tournament as a father for the first time, his wife Jelena giving birth to their son Stefan last October.
“Now as a father it’s a new chapter of my life and a new opportunity to play and perform in front of my son one day, hopefully, that’s one of the motivations I have,” said the world No1, who picked up a fifth Australian Open title last month.
“I constantly try to find new sources of motivation, because it’s a very mental game. I’m aware everybody is practicing hard, trying to improve their game and that makes me keep up with them and try to get my game to the highest possible level.”
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Roger Federer was worried he would be rusty when he stepped on the court for the first time in a month to begin his title defence in Dubai but the Swiss was anything but, crushing Mikhail Youzhny in less than an hour.
Dressed in a neon orange t-shirt and shorts with a sparkly gold stripe on each side, Federer lit up centre court which saw full grandstands for the first time this fortnight.
“I’m lucky enough to be put on prime time most of the time so people come out and watch me play often,” said Federer, who needed just 56 minutes to dismiss Youzhny 6-3, 6-1.
“I do appreciate that, because I must say it’s much easier getting excited and motivated for matches like this than being put on court 3 at 12:00 during the day when there is nobody going to come out because everybody’s working.
“So I appreciate that, and it’s definitely keeping me on the tour longer.”
— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) February 23, 2015
The Swiss, whose six Dubai titles make him the most successful player in the tournament’s 23-year history, did not face a single break point against Youzhny and fired eight aces that put him just 15 short of the 9,000 mark – a milestone only achieved by Goran Ivanisevic, Ivo Karlovic and Andy Roddick.
Federer went into the match with a dominat 15-0 record against his opponent.
And while 2015 has so far been the year where such winning records have been tarnished, with Tomas Berdych snapping a 17-match losing streak to Rafael Nadal in Melbourne in January and Gilles Simon ending his 12-match winless run against Andy Murray earlier this month in Rotterdam, Federer’s perfect sequence against Youzhny never looked in danger.
It appeared to be an even affair for the first six games before Federer switched gears, breaking twice in the seventh and ninth to quickly take a one-set lead in just 32 minutes.
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 23, 2015
Half an hour later, Federer fired down an ace to seal the Russian’s fate and book a second round with one of two Spaniards – Fernando Verdasco or Guillermo Garcia Lopez.
Earlier in the day, fifth-seeded Ernests Gulbis squandered a 4-1 lead in the first set to fall to Denis Istomin 7-5, 6-2. Gulbis has now lost seven matches in a row, his last victory coming in the Moscow quarter-finals last October.
The Latvian world No14, who shocked Federer to make the French Open semi-finals last year, admits he is struggling with his form and says he needs a couple of weeks of practice to make some much-needed changes.
“I’m not feeling my shots at all. I have no timing. In practice I have been playing worse than in the match,” Gulbis explained.
Gasquet gets the job done despite squandering 2 match points, beats Seppi 6-4, 6-7(1), 6-4 to make Dubai second round
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) February 23, 2015
“Every player is different, but for me it’s very important to have the feeling of the racquet when I contact the ball, it’s a purely technical thing.
“If I have it, everything slowly starts to come together, the moving, the serve, everything.
“As soon as I lose the feeling of the contact, everything else collapses. That’s what’s been happening the last couple of tournaments. It’s very tough to change it during tournaments. I need to have two weeks of good practice, and then I can change something.”
Istomin, whose win was his first in a Dubai main draw, was aware of Gulbis’ poor record coming into their match but said he never underestimated the talented Latvian.
“Ernests can be losing [but] then he can beat anyone. You have to concentrate,” said the Uzbek world No65.
The last match of the day saw two-time Dubai semi-finalist Richard Gasquet squander two set points in the second set before recovering in the third to beat Seppi 6-4, 6-7 (1), 6-4 in two hours and 21 minutes.
“It was very tough because I could have won in two sets. He played two big shots to save match points and then he took a lot of confidence after that, playing an incredible tiebreak,” said Gasquet, who is coming off a title win in Montpellier.
“I’m feeling great that I won. The condition is difficult, the ball is flying, the court was fast. It’s not the best conditions for me, but I’m trying to do my best.”
The tennis world has been waiting for the rise of Ernests Gulbis for many years now and when the talented Latvian shocked Roger Federer to make the French Open semi-finals last June, it felt like the breakthrough was both overdue and imminent.
Unfortunately, he has won just nine matches since.
The wait right now is no longer about Gulbis winning a grand slam, it is simply about him winning a match for the first time this season. We’re seven weeks into the new year and the 26-year-old remains winless in 2015.
Four opening round losses in the four events he has played this year have taken his losing streak to six. But while many may be keeping count, none of it matters to Gulbis, who comes to Dubai for the first time in four years, looking to kick-start his season.
“This is not a problem. I’m making everybody very calm, distracted by my bad results and then I’m going to shoot. One good result and I’m coming back. This is a distraction, it’s the calm before the storm,” a laughing Gulbis told Sport360° ahead of his first round match against Denis Istomin on Monday.
Gulbis, currently ranked No14 in the world, has not been back to the UAE since he made his debut here in 2011.
“In 2011 I still was ranked good enough to make the main draw here. And then unfortunately nobody gave me a wildcard. Nobody wanted me here,” he joked. “It wasn’t by choice, it was by circumstances.”
The circumstances have been quite tumultuous for Gulbis over the years. A maiden grand slam quarter-final at the French Open in 2008 helped him break into the world’s top-50 as a 19-year-old. He wouldn’t make it past the third round at a major for another six years.
In between, he rose to No21 in the rankings then lost the plot, fell to as low as 159 in 2012 and found himself getting denied a wildcard at a lowly Challenger event in Germany.
It sparked a fightback that saw him add more discipline to his life, quit drinking amongst other lifestyle choices and focus on tennis in ways he never had before.
The result was a top-10 debut after his last-four showing in Paris last year. But things haven’t gone according to plan since Roland Garros.
A shoulder injury plagued the second half of his 2014 season and although he didn’t stop playing, he wasn’t able to get the results he wanted.
“The shoulder didn’t affect me in Wimbledon. In Wimbledon I lost because I played bad. But then later on it affected me during the USA swing, including the US Open,” he said.
“And then afterwards, end of last year, it was just bad. I was trying to deal with playing tournaments and healing the shoulder but it didn’t work. So I had time in the offseason to heal it more or less. Now it’s almost 100 per cent so that’s a good thing.
“The rest [is down to] matches, you win some, you lose some. It’s a matter of one tournament to win one or two rounds, the confidence will be back. I don’t see a big problem with it.”
— Ernests Gulbis (@egulbisfans) February 23, 2015
Does he feel he can do something in Dubai this week, where he is seeded No5?
“Something, definitely. What it is? I don’t know yet. The confidence level is zero,” admits Gulbis between chuckles.
“Of course when you’ve been losing a couple of tournaments in a row, confidence isn’t great.
“I’ve been in much worse situations, I’m used to it. The thing is you just need to continue to put in the work that you do when you play well.
“The year is long. You don’t take one bad swing as a sign that the whole year is going to be bad. Physically I’m feeling very good now. Game-wise there are certain things I need to work on but it’s a matter of one or two wins.”
After his ranking plummeted, Gulbis had the urge to prove – to himself and to the world – what he is capable of.
Has he found it more difficult to have that drive since his French Open heroics?
“You find drive in everything. No it’s not more difficult because my goal hasn’t changed since I started playing tennis. My goal is still to become No1,” insists Gulbis.
“And that’s what is driving me. You have to understand that tennis is not going to be the main thing you do for the rest of your life, at least definitely not for me.
“That’s why I need to accumulate all my energy in the next five years to reach this goal. I want to make sure that I reach the highest that I can in this sphere in life and then to move on to maybe something completely different. Work on things, on myself, what I haven’t been able to do when I’m on tour.
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 23, 2015
“Because you don’t have much free time to do things you’re really interested in doing. And you can’t really travel the world and see and meet people you’re interested in meeting just because of your schedule.
“If I’m doing this, I want to do it the best I can. Or you don’t do it at all.”
He spent a portion of his youth training at the Niki Pilic Academy in Germany, at the same time Novak Djokovic was there, and Gulbis recalls the Serb was incredibly professional even as a child.
While Gulbis may lack nothing in terms of talent, it was discipline that was a question mark for him and it is an area he has worked the most on.
“I think you have to have a routine and discipline but I think that you have to break this routine and discipline from time to time, just not lose yourself. And that’s what I’m trying to do,” says Gulbis.
The crucial thing is that Gulbis believes in his abilities, and while winning matches has eluded him for a little while, he feels his success or failure is more in his hands now.
“Mostly yes, it’s more in my control. If I play the top guys who play the best game they are capable of then it’s a different story. But if you play guys not in the top-10, then I believe that if I play my best game then I’m capable of beating everybody, even in the top-10. But if I’m playing bad you can lose to anybody.”
Do you consider yourself a vain person?
Look at me. I look like a guy who hasn’t slept for two months, who came out of a forest. Do I look like a guy who cares about this? I honestly care only about what’s inside, not about what’s outside.
Does it bother you when you get photographed 100 times a day?
I don’t like it. I don’t like this modern world stuff that anybody can take a phone out and can make a photo of you. That’s an intrusion of my privacy and I don’t like it at all. I can also get aggressive is somebody does this, without my asking. Because I don’t like it. But if you’re on court, you have to understand that you’re on public display and there I don’t mind it.
What did you do in your offseason?
I dedicate myself 100 per cent to tennis, that’s the offseason working part. There is another part which is offseason resting part. That was interesting. But we skip that part (laughs).
You’ve lost a couple of times to young upstart Dominic Thiem recently, is it strange losing to a younger player you know so well and train closely with?
Exactly you put it right. I’m losing, not him winning. The last two matches we played, I lost them, not exactly he won them. I always try to find answers with me not in something else.