The 10th edition of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship was undoubtedly the craziest in the tournament’s decade-long history, with more surprises than anyone could have bargained for.
With the stream of line-up changes and last-minute withdrawals, the addition of a women’s fixture for the first time at the MWTC and the shock appearance of Andy Murray, there’s plenty to reflect on following the weekend’s action in Abu Dhabi.
Here are five takeaways from everything that unfolded at Zayed Sports City…
SERENA MEANS BUSINESS, BUT NOT JUST YET
She is intent on making a comeback, even saying she expects her daughter to attend her matches when she is older (Olympia is currently four months-old). But the American 23-time Grand Slam champion is much less clear when discussing her short-term plans.
Where is she heading after Abu Dhabi? “I don’t know,” she responded. Is she going to play the Australian Open. “I’m taking it one day at a time,” she said.
The most telling part of the conversation with Serena was when she described the “trepidation” she felt at the start of her match with Ostapenko. Serena was not moving well in the first set and she admitted she was “afraid” at the beginning and didn’t have confidence in her body or her shots but that her fears eased as the match went on.
Serena had a baby a mere four months ago. Expecting her to head to Melbourne to defend her Australian Open title is a huge ask. Only she can decide whether she is ready for it, but as of right now, the 36-year-old says is not sure if she’s ready to get back on tour just yet.
It will be a big surprise if she turns up in Melbourne. But not a surprise if she returns to the circuit, when she’s ready, and wins more titles.
ANDERSON’S ONE TO WATCH DOWN UNDER
South Africa’s Kevin Anderson claimed three solid wins in Abu Dhabi over the past three days, defeating world No. 10 Pablo Carreno Busta, world No. 5 Dominic Thiem, and world No. 20 Roberto Bautista Agut to become the first player outside Rafael Nadal, Murray and Novak Djokovic to lift the MWTC trophy.
The US Open runner-up looked in great form in the UAE capital, and admits he feels more and more confident in his game and his abilities now. Anderson couldn’t play the Australian Open in 2017 because he was out injured. Now healthy and beaming with confidence, the big man with the big serve could be a real threat Down Under, and throughout the year.
“I give my game the belief it deserves now, I have a very good shot at winning matches regardless of who is on the other side of the net.”@KAndersonATP after win at @MubadalaTennis #MWTC10 pic.twitter.com/fkNyfnbWpj
— Sport360° (@Sport360) December 30, 2017
INJURIES ARE APLENTY
Djokovic pulled out of Abu Dhabi and Doha, Nadal withdrew from Brisbane, Murray is in Brisbane but looked rusty in the UAE capital. Stan Wawrinka and Milos Raonic were a no-show in Abu Dhabi. Kei Nishikori is out of Sydney… There are so many question marks and little answers about the readiness of most of the players who have been at the top of the sport in recent years.
What does that mean? It means Roger Federer can sweep several big titles early in the season if he’s up for it. It also opens up opportunities for the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem, to step up to the plate and go for a maiden Slam Down Under. Lots of surprises are in store in 2018.
WOMEN’S TENNIS BELONGS AT MWTC
Judging from the fanfare around Serena and Ostapenko, and the crowds that turned up for their practices and their match, it’s a no-brainer to bring back at least one women’s fixture to the MWTC next year.
It was the first time women’s tennis was played at the tournament and organisers admit they will speak to the event owners, FLASH, about all the different possibilities of making it an annual thing. The tournament format is compact, played over just three days, but rethinking the set-up and adding women’s matches is doable and a great idea. Let’s see if it happens.
THIEM’S OVER HIS CRISIS
Thiem was very forthcoming when discussing the “breakdown” in confidence he experienced post-US Open. The Austrian looked in good shape and form during practice and in his matches against Anderson (despite losing in two sets) and Pablo Carreno Busta (Thiem won in two).
Adding Galo Blanco to his team is also a positive and perhaps the Spanish coach and can help Thiem adjust his schedule and advise him to be wiser when it comes to picking tournaments. Thiem’s conviction in his statements regarding his restored self-belief are positive sign the world No. 5 is good to go for the new season.
Serena Williams described her comeback match in Abu Dhabi on Saturday as “perfect” and said she was proud of herself for stepping on court so soon after having her first child.
The American superstar lost a tight exhibition match against Jelena Ostapenko at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on Saturday, less than four months after the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia.
Serena, one of the greatest tennis players to ever pick up a racquet, confessed to “trepidation” at the start of the match, and described how tough it is to get back to training after giving birth.
“I can’t rate my performance. I’ve had a lot of comebacks, from surgery, foot surgeries, knees, but I’ve never had a comeback from actually giving birth to a human being. So in my eyes I feel like it was a wonderful match for me,” the 36-year-old said in Abu Dhabi.
“For me it’s all about physical, how do I physically feel, how am I moving, how am I physically recovering, so for me that’s kind of more what it is for me. Rating wise, I can’t give myself a rating. I just am really proud of being out here, being able to play in Abu Dhabi, being able to just compete. I had a really tough few months and I’m just really excited to be out here.”
Serena was not moving well at the start of the match against the Latvian Roland Garros champion but that aspect of her game improved as the showdown progressed.
“Yes, that was a really good thing. In the beginning it was a little tough, I also think I had a ton of trepidation out there, but as the match moved on I was less afraid.
“I was like ‘I’m not going to fall over and break , I’m going to be okay’ and the more I played, the more confident I felt. And the more I was able to go for shots that I was afraid to go for in the first set.
“So I think that was really good and I feel like this was a wonderful opportunity for me to kind of test to see where I am. Not only physically but mentally, mentally you have to get over that hump of like ‘go for the shot, you’re going to be okay’. It’s a lot that goes through a female’s body after you have a baby so I think it was perfect.”
On her part, Ostapenko, the current world No. 7, was thrilled she finally got to face her idol, in a singles match, and praised Serena’s performance.
“I think she was playing pretty good for being out for a long time. I mean she’s such a great champion and such a talented player, so I think not many players can play at such a high level after being out for a long time,” said the 20-year-old.
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) December 30, 2017
Serena assured she is “not done yet” with the sport while adding that she has nothing to prove. Still, she is just one Slam away from equaling Margaret Court’s all-time record of 24 Grand Slam titles. Court won three majors after having a baby, in the 1970s, but Serena refuses to draw any comparisons with the Australian, noting the fact that Court competed in a completely different era, “a very long time ago”.
“Now I’m just taking it one day at a time for me. I think being a mom is something incredibly special and I’ve embarked on a really good journey. It’s probably the best journey of my life and I love it so much. It’s pretty awesome,” said Serena.
Kevin Anderson broke the roll call of past champions at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship to become the first player other than Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, to win the season-opener in Abu Dhabi.
Fitting, perhaps, on the tournament’s 10th anniversary in the UAE capital that a new name should be etched into the history books.
And Anderson, who at the age of 31 is playing the best tennis of his career, was deserving of an impressive 6-4, 7-6 (0) win over Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut under the lights at Zayed Sports City on Saturday night.
It was just about the perfect few days for the South African, who beat Pablo Carreno Busta and Dominic Thiem — two players ranked higher than him – on his way to victory on his second appearance at the event.
“I’ve played three very good matches here this week and I thought the final was of high-quality. Both of us are really looking forward to the start of the season and it’s such a great opportunity to come here to Abu Dhabi,” Anderson, the 2017 US Open finalist, said during his on-court interview.
“Everybody competed really hard, it’s a terrific atmosphere so hopefully I’ll be able to come back more times in the future. I see that there were lots of South Africans in the crowd supporting me all week, and it’s fantastic to see tennis thriving in this part of the world.”
With injuries to the likes of Murray, Djokovic and Nadal, the world number 14 could well be one of the experienced men, but an outsider, looking to do some damage on the fast courts of Melbourne at the Australian Open next month.
“Yes, definitely (using win as springboard going into new season). I just want to thank everybody at the tournament, a special thanks to sponsor Mubadala and it’s just a really good event to be part of.”
Bautista Agut, equally, was in a positive mood after more than playing his part in a competitive showpiece occasion.
He said: “I’ve had some great support here, I really enjoyed playing on this court so thanks a lot to everyone over these three days. It’s a really good event to come and play and I’ve had a good experience here. It’s important to play strong matches going into 2018 and I’m very happy to play the final.”