If anyone wants proof that men’s tennis is on the cusp of a real transition, then look no further than the draw of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
The tournament, which began with its qualifying rounds on Saturday and will officially kick off its main draw on Monday, has always featured a stacked field headlined by multiple top-10 players like Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
The Dubai title was won by a member of the ‘Big Five’ (Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Murray, or Stan Wawrinka) in each of the last nine years and 14 of the last 15 editions.
But this year, none of them are competing in the Dubai showpiece, and only one top-10 player – Grigor Dimitrov – is in the draw.
While Federer and Nadal occupy the top two spots in the world rankings, the rest of the top-10 is looking fairly different to what we’ve been used to and features three players aged 25 and under – Alexander Zverev (20 years old), Dominic Thiem (24) and Jack Sock (25).
Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka have struggled with injuries while Federer has been playing a lighter schedule to preserve his energy and extend his career. Nadal is dealing with a hip problem he picked up in Melbourne last month but is due to make a return this upcoming week in Acapulco.
For the first time in a long time, the Dubai tournament is quite open and it feels like literally any one of the 32 players in the draw can lift the trophy next Saturday.
“I think not only this tournament. If you look at the whole year, last year already and also beginning of this year, you see a lot more surprises, you see different winners, except maybe if Roger is there, but it is a little bit different because all these top guys that used to win everything they’ve been injured or are struggling and all these other guys have been playing better,” said Dutchman Robin Haase, who reached the semi-finals in Dubai last season and is the ninth-highest ranked player in this year’s draw.
“The level is just getting closer and closer and I think that’s great. I think the time that you knew the quarters are probably going to look like this, or six out of eight are those names, now it’s only two out of eight.
“I think that’s good. I think you see more variety of players so I’m looking forward also myself to play in these times because it’s more open than ever.”
Haase faces Italian Paolo Lorenzi in the first round in Dubai and could potentially take on Dimitrov in his second match. Dimitrov got Tunisian wildcard Malek Jaziri in his opener.
“I always look at my first round, it’s no use to look further,” said Haase. “I was almost seeded, I was No. 9, so I was actually hoping for someone to pull out so I would be seeded. To be in the second round maybe already get the No. 1 of the draw that’s not great. But it’s the way it is. But I have to win my first round. The No. 1 has to win his first round. So it’s open and I’m looking forward to it.”
Next Gen player Borna Coric, who upset Andy Murray here in 2015 on his way to the semi-finals, is a resident in Dubai and frequents the emirate to train every offseason.
He has good memories from this tournament but still thinks it will be tough for everyone, even in the absence of the big guns.
“It is a little bit more open but all these guys are great players, they’re very competitive. Each match is a different story so it’s not going to be easy,” said the 21-year-old Croatian.
Coric begins his campaign against French No. 5 seed Richard Gasquet.
PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)
Grigor Dimitrov (BUL)  v Philipp Kohlschreiber (GER) 
Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP)  v Richard Gasquet (FRA) 
Damir Dzumhur (BIH)  v Filip Krajinovic (SRB) 
Lucas Pouille (FRA)  v Yuichi Sugita (JPN) 
Malek Jaziri (TUN)
Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE)
Marcos Baghdatis (CYP)
ONES TO WATCH
Karen Khachanov (RUS)
The world No. 47 Next Gen star has a big game that can cause some serious damage on the fast courts of Dubai. This is just his second appearance at the tournament – he lost his opener to Bautista Agut last year – but he is a Dubai resident and is familiar with the hot and humid conditions. He is playing the semi-finals in Marseille on Saturday so will have to deal with a quick turnaround to be ready for Dubai.
Roberto Bautista Agut (ESP)
The No. 3 seed, ranked No. 22 in the world, is making his sixth consecutive appearance in Dubai, where he reached the quarter-finals in 2016. He already has a title under his belt this season, defeating Juan Martin del Potro in the final in Auckland last month, but has since struggled. With this open draw, Dubai could provide the perfect opportunity for the Spaniard to bounce back.
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