The line-up may not be as blockbuster as it’s been in previous years, but it’s fair to say that all eyes will be on the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) this weekend in Abu Dhabi as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic make their long-awaited returns to the court.
For the first time in the tournament’s 10-year history, a women’s match will take place at the MWTC, and who else to mark that special occasion than one of the greatest tennis players of all-time – the one and only Serena.
She takes on reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition clash on Saturday December 30.
New mum Serena, who delivered her first child Alexis Olympia in September, has not played since winning a record 23rd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last January.
While some people can discard her Abu Dhabi appearance as a mere exhibition, there’s definitely reason for the world to be paying close attention to Serena’s match on Saturday.
Although she has hinted in the past that her intention is to try and defend her Australian Open crown next month, Serena has made no official statements regarding her tour return date and there is very little information out there as to how much she’s been practicing since the birth of her child.
Barring two images posted on her Instagram – one of a tennis court and the other of her pair of tennis shoes on what appears to be a tennis court – Serena has not shared any photos or videos of her actually hitting or practicing.
Seeing Serena hit a tennis ball here in Abu Dhabi this weekend is going to be a big deal no matter what.
While the MWTC is indeed an exhibition event, players have rarely treated it that way. The level of play tends to be highly competitive simply because top stars use it as a means to gage their form ahead of the new season.
Serena is facing the world No. 7 in the UAE capital. She will definitely be prepared to put together a solid performance against the fiery Ostapenko, and it will hardly be a hit-and-giggle situation.
You also don’t expect the 36-year-old to make the trip from the US to Abu Dhabi only to return state-side after that. She probably plans on flying to Australia after that, which is an encouraging sign she could be on court in Melbourne next month.
While the world will no doubt be following whatever unfolds at Zayed Sports City, Serena’s presence is a huge positive for local fans here in the UAE. The MWTC is one of the fan-friendliest tennis events in the world, and to think you can actually access the practice courts, free of charge, and accidentally stumble upon a Serena Williams warm-up or training session is unmatchable elsewhere.
Finally adding a female component to the event is also brilliant news for Abu Dhabi.
Think of all the young girls who can get inspired by someone like Serena and Ostapenko, playing in their own backyard. While the UAE is no stranger to women’s tennis, with Dubai hosting a WTA event since 2001, having a female presence at the MWTC is long overdue. Hopefully the idea is here to stay.
— Sport360° (@Sport360) December 27, 2017
Meanwhile, Djokovic is set to make his first appearance since Wimbledon and how he fares against the likes of Dominic Thiem or Roberto Bautista Agut can be quite telling ahead of his official season start in Doha next week.
We’ve seen how, this time last year, Rafael Nadal returned from an injury break by playing and winning Abu Dhabi, then going on to enjoy a phenomenal season that saw him get back to the top of the rankings. David Goffin displayed subliminal form in the UAE capital 12 months ago then went on to finish 2017 ranked No. 7 in the world and defeating Roger Federer and Nadal en route to the runner-up spot at the ATP Finals.
Getting the better of some of the top players in the world ahead of the new season could be just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic, and a welcome confidence boost.
Even if Serena and Djokovic are not ready to showcase some strong form, Abu Dhabi will no doubt reveal insight into where they’re heading.
The 10th edition of the MWTC is suddenly must-see TV. Be sure to tune in!
Mubadala World Tennis Championship organisers let stars showcase their artistic abilities off the court ahead of what will be a visual spectacle for fans on the court this weekend.
With the stunning Louvre Abu Dhabi in the background, (from left to right) 20-year-old upcoming star Andrey Rublev, world number five Dominic Thiem, South African Kevin Anderson, US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta, and Spain’s Roberto Bautista Agut tried their hand at writing their names in Arabic calligraphy.
And for the first time, the Championship will also feature women’s tennis players with 23-time Grand Slam Champion, Serena Williams, making her much-anticipated return to action after giving birth. She will play current French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko in a one-off match on Saturday, December 30 at 5pm.
Thursday, December 28
17:00 Pablo Carreño Busta v Kevin Anderson
Not before 19:00 Roberto Bautista Agut v Andrey Rublev
Friday, December 29
14:30 5th/6th finish
17:00 Dominic Thiem v Pablo Carreño Busta/Kevin Anderson
Not before 19:00 Novak Djokovic v Roberto Bautista Agut/Andrey Rublev
Saturday, December 30
14:30 3rd/4th finish
17:00 Serena Williams v Jelena Ostapenko
Not before 19:00 Championship match
Just as it is in life, time flies on the tennis circuit and it’s shocking how the sport has such a short-term memory sometimes.
A mere 13 months ago, Novak Djokovic was battling Andy Murray for the No. 1 ranking. In June 2016, he won a fourth consecutive major to complete a career Grand Slam and was on top of the world.
Today, Djokovic is ranked No. 12 and is coming off a near-six-month injury-enforced break. Murray is ranked No. 16 and, like Djokovic, has not played a match since Wimbledon, also sidelined due to physical problems.
Last year’s top-two have watched from afar as Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer enjoyed successful comebacks from injury, winning two Slams each in 2017, and becoming No. 1 and No. 2 in the world rankings respectively.
At 36, Federer has defied the odds and returned from a six-month hiatus at the end of 2016 to put together a stunning 52-5 win-loss record in 2017.
Djokovic will attempt to follow suit when he returns to action from his own injury timeout. He will test the waters at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship this weekend in Abu Dhabi, before flying to Doha for his official season start.
The Serb, who not long ago was experiencing one of the most dominant stints in tennis history, fell victim to an elbow problem. He also showed cracks in his mental armour and finally pulled the plug early on his 2017 season in July.
He sought refuge in his family while his elbow healed, and returns to the court with a somewhat philosophical approach to both tennis and life.
A true believer in the benefits of meditation and yoga, a mellower version of Djokovic seems to have emerged. But that doesn’t mean the animalistic hunger for success that drove him throughout his career is gone.
While he acknowledges he requires patience to guide himself back to top form on tour, his goals are far from modest.
“I would lie to you and I would not be honest, not to you, to myself, if I tell you anything less than being No. 1 and winning Slams,” he says of his post-injury objectives.
“I know that I’ve done it in the past, I’ve proven to myself that I can do it and why not aim for it again? Because I feel that, first of all, I have the willpower. Which is the most important thing. You need to really want something, you need to wish for it, you need really strongly believe and commit to that. So I am.
“And not just myself, which is very important, my family, my wife, my children are there, my parents, my brothers, and my team, are very supportive of me and they’re giving me that energy that I need.
“For these circumstances now that I am in, I’m trying to balance these goals, at the same time be a bit more understanding of what’s going on here (elbow) and say just take your time. Even if it doesn’t happen next season or whatever, take your time. But once I’m there, I’ve got to be honest, I don’t satisfy myself with anything less than that.”
Djokovic turned pro back in 2003, and experienced success on tour at an early age, winning his first Masters 1000 10 years ago at the Miami Open and claiming his first major in 2008 when he was 20.
He has amassed 12 Grand Slam titles, has spent 223 weeks at No. 1, won Davis Cup and an Olympic bronze medal. Now aged 30, Djokovic says he can still find incentive to drive him further in the sport.
“My general goals in tennis and life is to really enjoy what I do and that’s what drives me still,” he says.
“That’s what drives Roger (Federer) by the way. I mean you saw what he has done in the last year after coming back from a six-month, similar to me, absence from the tour and coming back and almost becoming No. 1 and Rafa is world No. 1. That’s proof that you can do it.
“It doesn’t matter the age or not, if you take care of your body, your body’s kind of reversing that age clock and your mind as well, if you have that kind of spirit of a child enjoying what it does then you get energy. You get energy from above, I believe in it, I strongly do.
“I also have been in situations, many times, it happens throughout the year, where you have days where you’re thinking ‘oh my God’, I don’t feel like it, why this? Why that? And that’s something that is normal that we all go through we all have those days and you have situations where you’re forcing yourself to do it. And then you feel the difference, you feel yourself when you’re really over-trying or overreacting or whatever it is… but those days are necessary in order for the other days to feel better and to understand the importance.”
Federer significantly cut down on his schedule in 2017 in order to take care of his body. The result of that was a masterclass in efficiency from the Swiss, who picked up seven titles from 12 tournaments contested.
Djokovic will be more wary when entering tournaments but says he won’t be making any significant changes to his calendar.
“For now, I plan on playing Abu Dhabi, Doha and the Australian Open. And of course all the other big ones after that. The one that is still under question mark, the week that I was playing the last five, six, seven years, is always either Dubai or Acapulco and that’s something that I don’t know. And Davis Cup, I don’t know if I’m going to play or not,” he explains.
“It really depends on how my elbow reacts to all this month, month and a half of training, playing and matches. I hope I will make it through the entire month and just play well and go deep in Australia, but obviously it’s the first time, obviously I always have high ambitions and goals and I know what I’m capable of but this is the first time where I’m probably a little bit more cautious and aware of what the situation and circumstances I’m in with my injury that kept me away from the tour.
“So I want to be smart with it in a way, I don’t want to really – if you ask me I want to play every week of course, but still I have to be smart with it. So the schedule right now is supposed to be as it was in previous years, not much difference to be honest. It depends how January goes and then we’ll see.”
While he may be cautious about his 2018 schedule, he is far from that when looking ahead to his future in the sport.
Djokovic has surrounded himself by people who know all too well the concept of longevity in sport. His coaching team includes Andre Agassi, who played tennis until he was 36, and Radek Stepanek, who hung up his racquet last month aged 38.
Asked if he sees himself competing on tour well into his late 30s the same way Agassi, Stepanek and now Federer is doing.
“Yes I do, even older than that actually. I don’t want to put any limit to my career or to anything that I do, really. The limits only exist in the mind and if you set yourself a limit, or say ‘hey, it was a standard before so we have to accept the standard that once you reach that magical number 30 in tennis you’re not anymore at your peak’. Who says that? Jimmy Connors played when he was 40 semis of US Open, Roger is where he is winning Slams at his age. Who says that?” says Djokovic.
“I truly believe that we are the creators of our own destiny and our own paths and what we really want. What do you really want? That’s always a question: what do I really want and how much do I want it? Because for now I am very happy and very grateful to be able to have a family and play the sport that I love with all my heart today, as I did when I was four, when I started, and of course it’s essential to have the support of your close ones.
“And in that kind of environment I’m able to shine, I’m able to really excel. I’m hoping I can excel even more. But if you stop my career today and you ask me if I’m satisfied with what I’ve achieved, of course. I have to, if I draw a line, of course. But if you ask me if that’s enough, I would say no. If I had to finish my career today yes I’m happy with what I’ve achieved but am I satisfied knowing I can do more? I’m not satisfied.”
Great day on the court with @radek_stepanek looking forward to next one . Lots of exciting ahead of us! Thank you for joining the team 😉🎾Odličan dan na terenu sa Radekom. Radujem se narednoj prilici da radimo i razvijamo se zajedno. Hvala što si se pridružio mom timu. #Idemooo #training #tennis #motivation
Djokovic started working with Agassi last May ahead of the French Open and the American legend is sticking around with him next season.
It is a partnership Djokovic seems to be very happy with, and the plan is for Agassi to be with the Serb at all the Slams in 2018, and potentially more tournaments. Stepanek will be doing most of the heavy-lifting though, traveling the tour with Djokovic year-round.
In Agassi, Djokovic gets wisdom, calmness and the understanding of what it means to be a family man. In Stepanek, Djokovic has a friend who shares a passion for sports science, and body and mind wellness.
Together, Djokovic believes he’s hit the tennis jackpot.
“We always shared a lot and now he shares even more because he says I’m not on the opposite side of the net anymore so he can share even more,” Djokovic says with a laugh when discussing Stepanek’s knowledge of body preservation and career longevity.
“So we’re starting to spend more and more time with each other and I still look forward to get to know him even better. I was very happy with how our couple of weeks of training went in Monaco. Andre Agassi was there as well and it was the perfect week because everybody was together, the whole new team, and we obviously put objectives, daily objectives, long-term objectives, between us, and on paper, and discussing how we can improve my game and how I can play as efficiently as possible, with less energy spending as possible.
“And obviously Radek is one of the oldest players to play actively on the tour and there’s definitely a lot of great insights there from him on how you can keep your mind and body sharp and keep that longevity and also Andre’s incredible, smart and wise approach to tennis and to life in general helps me get different perspectives of who I am and what I do and just tennis in general.
“But I think what impressed me the most with Andre is how he’s able to break down very complex conversations into very specific, precise information that sticks with you and that is the exact direction that you need in order to actually accomplish what you want. So that’s a part of him that is so impressive and both Radek and I are learning a lot from Andre.”
Brilliant chat with @DjokerNole ahead of the @MubadalaTennis Championship. Says he’s pain-free and sounds motivated to get back on court. Stay tuned for the full interview @Sport360! pic.twitter.com/PoXQN70JgY
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 25, 2017
Stepanek was competing on tour up until 11 months ago. In January, he became the oldest ATP quarter-finalist since Jimmy Connors in 1995, when he made the last-eight in Doha. He then became the oldest since 1977 to qualify for the Australian Open. Back surgery in March put an end to his season and he officially announced his retirement from the sport last month.
“I think Radek has managed to blend in to this coaching role very quickly,” Djokovic added. “Very fast. He’s so fresh off the active player career that he knows exactly what I go through and what I need and how when he can communicate certain things and how to speak to me to allow me to get into that state of mind, to be in the zone and to perform as best as I can.
“He also has a very observant and very intellectual approach to tennis and he also, that’s why Andre and him got along very well, because they simplify things very much. Me sometimes I go into the blue sky and put some clouds, jump from one cloud to another, and they’re like just focus on one thing and keep things simple.”
Agassi had said when he first teamed up with Djokovic that he was doing it on his “own dime and own time”. He was coaching the 30-year-old for free with a sole goal to help him get back to his best and improve beyond that.
Besides simplifying things, Djokovic says Agassi has bolstered his self confidence.
“Second thing that resonates the most from him to me is ‘trust yourself’. Really be aware of how good you are, be aware of your qualities, be aware of what other players go through when they play you,” says Djokovic.
“Because sometimes you’re always so self-critical, when you’re on court, you’re going through ‘okay, I’m going through this or that’, fighting through emotions, you’re not satisfied because you know you can do better and da da da, sometimes you just need to again think of a different perspective and understand that there are two players on the court and there’s stuff you do so well that you can always rely on them as your assets. So that’s something he keeps reminding me of and it’s something I feel is very wise.”
Djokovic hasn’t just found wisdom from hanging around Agassi. He has also developed it from becoming a father. Jelena his wife gave birth to their daughter Tara last September, and his son Stefan turned three last October.
When talking about fatherhood, Djokovic gets very poetic.
“First of all it unlocked a new dimension of love for me. I mentioned this before and I have to do it again because that’s something that probably left the biggest impression on me,” he explains.
“That emotion of unconditional love and care and attention for children, it’s something that is really, I never knew that existed. My wife and I were talking before Stefan was born three and a half years ago and we were saying that we don’t want anything to be forced, in terms of our reactions, emotions and sensations, we wanted everything to come naturally.
“When Stefan arrived it was just those tears of joy, of happiness, of gratitude, to be able to have the role of the parent. And then it puts things in perspective, it gives more purpose. It allows you to understand what really matters because you think you’re fighting for one thing, it’s always about yourself as a professional athlete you care about making good results, making history, this and that, and bla bla bla, but it’s all nice, it’s all great, but that’s not what matters the most. It will not fulfil your heart forever.
— We Are Tennis (@WeAreTennis) December 7, 2017
“Success on the court, lifting trophies, feels great because a result of your commitment of your journey, it’s a beautiful destination that when you arrive to it, you appreciate everything you’ve done. And it’s confirmation of your quality and you feel proud of it, but at the same time you realise soon enough that there’s much more to it and if you keep on looking for material things to always make you happy, I find it that it’s hard to get to that long, lasting happiness and love and joy and all these beautiful sensations that we, as human beings on this planet, are looking for every single moment.
“So being a parent teaches you that, it gives you perspective of life and what life really is and what your purpose is on this planet, to share your knowledge, your experiences, your love, your emotions, to spread.
“I like the analogy of a candle. Because people always think I don’t know what can I do to change the world. I’m only one and there’s like seven billion people on this planet, I’m too small, I can’t.
“But one candle can light millions and millions of candles without losing its own fire. So that analogy always kind of stays with me and it reminds me of how powerful we are as human beings and we’re really able to transcend our own fields. Everything affects everyone.
“So I try to be aware of everything that I do. Say how that affects my children, so I think it makes you even more aware and responsible, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I cannot be more grateful.”
Djokovic begins his MWTC campaign in Abu Dhabi on December 29 against the winner of Thursday’s clash between Roberto Bautista Agut and Andrey Rublev.
To read PART ONE of our interview with Djokovic, click here.