Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

If You Pay Them, They Will Come

Not all tennis tournaments are created alike, even those of allegedly equal standing. The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships awards precisely the same number of ranking points as the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships in Memphis last week, since both are ATP500 events. There the similarities end.

Dubai awards considerably more prizemoney, offers appearance fees only expressible using scientific notation, and an opportunity to be photographed in front of some of the world’s least restrained architecture. These factors doubtless account for the superiority of the field. The sixth seed in Dubai this year – Janko Tipsarevic – would have been the top seed in Memphis last week, had he bothered to show up. It also goes some way towards explaining why Dubai is voted best 500 level tournament nearly every year.

It probably helps that it gives the players an opportunity to venture outside, having been confined to indoor arenas in Western Europe for a few weeks now. (There is of course a whole other clay tour presently meandering through Latin America.) I certainly enjoy the sudden shift. Each year Dubai feels like a gust of warm clean air I hadn’t even realised I’d yearned for. It could just be a matter of convenience. From my vantage ten time zones ahead of Greenwich, it’s a treat to watch tennis matches that end before midnight. As I write, Tomas Berdych is mauling Tobias Kamke. The second round is already underway. Here’s how the first round went.

No less an authority than Lleyton Hewitt has anointed Marcos Baghdatis a ‘tremendous striker of the ball’. If balls are to be struck, then ‘tremendously’ is certainly high on my list of preferred ways to go about it (although I’m also partial to ‘infrequently’, depending on the circumstances). Faced with fourth seed Juan Martin del Potro, Baghdatis played more or less though he had nothing to lose, until he gained a break of serve in the third set. Then he had a break to lose, and duly lost it. A short while later he had three match points to lose, and he lost those as well, although I shouldn’t be quick to discount his opponent’s contribution. If Baghdatis grew tight at the key moments, then the Argentine grew loose, finally striking some tremendous balls of his own. Once the third set tiebreaker came round, del Potro’s victory was more or less assured; he has now won his last ten deciding set tiebreakers. It sealed a fine comeback from the world number seven, and a fine and dramatic match from both.

On paper, Nikolay Davydenko versus Tipsarevic was a first round encounter to savour. On court, it wasn’t, at least not if you were in a hurry. The first two games took thirty-one minutes, and both went to the Russian. So did the next four, in a mere nineteen minutes, delivering one of the most laboriously prepared bagels in the sport’s history. It was intriguing, although not from a strictly technical point of view, since the tennis was mostly poor. Davydenko later admitted to feeling exhausted after the opening games, and that he’d merely tried to steer the ball safely up the middle of the court. This proved to be more tactically prudent than Tipsarevic’s approach of spraying balls all over the place.

To be fair, he did land plenty of them in. Indeed, he won 34 points in that opening set, but no games. This provides a useful counterpoint to those commentators who believe they’re demonstrating a useful principle by converting points into games, i.e. ‘Isner has served sixteen aces – that’s four entire games worth!’ Really they’re proving little beyond their ability to reliably divide by four.

Having been bagelled, the Serb reconsidered his approach, and made some effort at landing even more shots within the confines of the court, and ensuring that enough of the points he won occurred consecutively. This had the happy result of putting him ahead a double break in the second set. Based on recent results, this was clearly an unfamiliar situation in which to find himself, and so he reverted to his earlier strategy, the one he’s been working on since the Australian Open. It yielded the usual result of losing in straight sets.

By some coincidence, Malek Jaziri also won 34 points in his opening set against Roger Federer, which turned out to be seven entire games worth, thus yielding him the set. This inevitably turned out to be more of a story than Federer’s eventual comfortable victory. Federer would insist, if anyone bothered to ask him anymore, that he never takes any opponent for granted, but I can’t help but wonder whether he initially saw Jaziri as a realistic threat. The defending champion was patchy in form, and frequently experimental in approach, charging the net, and volleying deep when a drop volley would have worked better by exposing his opponent’s suspect movement. Jaziri isn’t the spryest of contenders. Powerfully built, he has the presence (and features) of a low-level enforcer from The Sopranos.

But he’s a nice guy, and by his own admission he idolises Federer. All else being equal, Jaziri would undoubtedly have preferred to win, since he has to earn a living. Nonetheless I suspect he was quite satisfied to grab a tight set, and then to experience what it felt like once Federer’s forehand found its usual range and pace. For young players who grew up dreaming of facing Federer, deep down I’m sure they’d rather encounter him in decent form. The Swiss romped home 6-0 6-2, each set proving rather shorter than Tipsarevic and Davydenko’s opening pair of games.

It was also about as long as it took for Bernard Tomic to contract a crippling ‘general illness’ against Victor Hanescu. There was no word on whether this was an actual medical diagnosis. Requests for more detail have been rebuffed. Requests for less detail have been impossible to meet. The official word is that ‘something might have happened’ and that Tomic will recover ‘after rest probably’ or ‘some kind of surgery, maybe.’ At least it answers the question – which I posed elsewhere – of whether the young Australian’s fighting loss to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Marseilles last week will turn out to be a crucial moment in his development.

I submitted that it had been more crucial for Tsonga, since he’d gone on to win the Marseilles title in rather grand style, earning a disappointingly ordinary trophy and a peck on the cheek from a three year old. Before his cheek had even dried, Tsonga was off to Dubai, where Roger Rasheed was lurking in wait. Rasheed has already warned his charge (via the miracle of Twitter) that the hard work was about to begin. I’m not sure what was said in private, but upon taking the court Tsonga was a new man, one ready to turn around a six game winning streak against his opponent, Michael Llodra. He did this from a break up in the first set. An ace on game point was disallowed, the point was bafflingly replayed, confusion briefly reigned and Tsonga surrendered the break in a flurry of double faults. From there he looked truly lost. Afterwards he blamed the umpire, publicly. I suspect Rasheed will have words about that.

Anyway, Berdych has now finished off Kamke, Daniel Brands has seen off Mikhail Youzhny, and del Potro is tearing strips from Somdev Devvarman, all in brilliant sunshine. And it isn’t even midnight.

Federer Trumps Murray in Dubai and Continues to Even Out Head-to-Head Stats

Roger Federer continued his resurgence as he beat Andy Murray in the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in a well-fought 96 minutes, winning 7-5, 6-4. Although that can hardly seem like an intense or arduous match compared to the six hour long Australian Open final between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, it still had it’s moments of tennis brilliance. With the win, Federer also continued his effort to even out his losing record to Murray, now nearly level at 7-8 in lifetime meetings between the two.[Gallery at bottom]

Winning 33 of his past 35 matches since losing in the semifinals of the US Open to Djokovic, Federer has been blazing through the draws, including taking home the winner’s trophy last week in Rotterdam.

“It’s great. There is no substitute to confidence,” declared Federer. “I’ve played great. It’s not just that I’ve taken my chances. I really thought I played a good tournament here. I played a great tournament in Rotterdam. The end of last year was exceptional, so it’s nice to also win a tournament outdoors now. That gives me hope that I can carry it over to Indian Wells and Miami.”

Federer caught momentum winning the first set and came out firing in the second, quickly going up 3-1. The tables quickly turned as Murray pressured the Swiss into errors, taking the next three games to go up 4-3. But that is where Murray hit a roadblock and dropped his form, never to regain it for the rest of the match.

“I think second set he played better than me,” said Murray. “For sure I made a few too many mistakes in the second, and he was playing a lot more aggressive than in the first set. But overall it was a good week. It was perfect preparation for the stretch over in America. Got through very tough matches against top, top players, so it was good.”

It’s hard to imagine that the last time the world #3 played the world #4 was over one year ago but that was precisely the case before today’s match. Federer (currently #3) and Murray (currently #4) last met at the ATP World Tour Finals in London in November 2010 with Federer prevailing then as well. Time may pass, Federer may falter against Nadal, and Murray may still be the hardest worker in terms of physicality in the business, but that still didn’t change the outcome from the last time the two met on court. Murray has exuded better mental strength since his Australian Open and has stayed fairly positive compared to previous years, but with that, what more does Murray have to do in order to win on a consistent basis and against the top 3? Does he need to change his style, update his core team again, or is it simply that he hasn’t fully matured yet? Only time will tell, but I hope he figures it out sooner rather than later for his and all his fans’ sakes.

(Photos credit to Reuters and Getty Images)

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Ancic retires, Soderling bags another crown and Wozniacki back on top

Ancic Waves Farewell to Tour:

Former world No. 7 Mario Ancic has retired from tennis at the age of 26 to become a lawyer having battled injury and illness for years. The 2004 Wimbledon semifinalist secured three titles on the ATP Tour but has suffered with back and knee problems as well as the debilitating disease Glandular Fever. His crowning moment will undoubtedly be remembered as his winning singles rubber in the 2005 Davis Cup final to win the title for Croatia. He also held an Olympic Bronze medal in doubles (w. Ivan Ljubicic). Speaking from his hometown of Split he said: “I’m forced to quit because nature has decided it’s time. This is a difficult, emotional day for me. However, I don’t want it to be a sad day and I would like to still be remembered for everything I did in tennis and for the glory I brought to both Split and Croatia. Everything has an end. For me it was beautiful while it lasted and that is why this is a happy day. After consulting experts from Croatia, the United States, France and Germany I realised my body can no longer keep up with the rhythm of today’s tennis. The last back injury was the last straw.” Full fallout can be seen at the BBC Tennis website.

Soderling Continues Blistering Start to the Year:

Sweden’s Robin Soderling made it two victories in a row as he followed up last week’s success in Rotterdam by lifting the ATP Open 13 title in Marseille. The two trophies, added to the one at Brisbane in January, mean that 2011 is already a career-best year for the world No. 4 in terms of tournaments won. He stuttered at first but recovered well to overcome the unseeded giant Croat Marin Cilic 6-7 (8), 6-3, 6-3. He has now won 17 of his 18 matches this year, his only defeat coming in the fourth round of the Aussie Open to surprise package Alex Dolgopolov. “It’s of course a very nice feeling,” said Soderling. “Winning three tournaments in four tries is something I’ve never been close to before. It’s the best possible start. I’ve won many matches and only lost one, unfortunately in the fourth round in Melbourne. It’s a great start and I really hope it can continue this way.” After suffering with consistency over the past year the world No. 28 Marin Cilic is finally seeing a decent return to form. He reflected on his defeat: “For a set and a half I was playing really well and in a high level; I was able to stay with him physically and dictating the game. I was extremely happy with the performance I played. In the seventh game of the second set, when I lost serve, that changed the momentum a bit. He got a step in front of me and I was all the time behind, looking to make changes to get back in the game. He was really playing good in the second part of the match.”

Woz back on Top:

Caroline Wozniacki returned to No. 1 in the world after taking her first title of the year at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. She overcame the Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-1, 6-3 in just 75 minutes to win the trophy without dropping a set in any of her matches. “I was hitting the ball cleanly and aggressively,” said the Dane. “I knew I had to, because if Svetlana is allowed to dictate, she’s just too strong. It was very important to stay pretty close to the baseline and keep her moving. I’m a player that can play aggressively, I can play defensively, I can mix it up and wait for the right moment. It depends on the opponent and it depends on how I feel. I always try to come up with the right answer to win the match.” “I was just making so many unforced errors,” Kuznetsova said. “She defends well and doesn’t really give you many free points. She plays a stable game and she wins. I just kept changing my strategy all match instead of just choosing one thing and playing it. She’s just a smarter player. That’s it.”

Big Title in Many Ways for Roddick:

Andy Roddick ended the hopes of rising Canadian hopeful Milos Raonic in the final of the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships with a thrilling 7-6(7), 6-7(11), 7-5 victory on Sunday. It is the third time the American has won the event having done so in 2002 and 2009 while he also reached the final in ’03 and ’07. He is the third active player on the tour behind Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal to win 30 ATP Tour level titles and he did so in his 50th ATP Tour final appearance. “Winning tennis tournaments I don’t ever take for granted,” said the world No. 8. “I’ve won 30 of them now, but I think every one of them is just as exciting. I get just as much joy today as I did my first one.” He took the spoils following an intense and spectacular match point which was secured with a forward lunge from the deuce court which produced a forehand winner down the line Raonic couldn’t get near. “That’s the best shot I’ve ever hit in my life, considering the circumstance,” he said. “I played a pretty good point before that. Just making the return, you get disheartened when he doesn’t miss the next ball because it’s tough to get a serve back. He had a great volley there. I don’t really remember much else besides the fact that I went for the ball, I hit it, I didn’t really think much of it. Then I heard people cheering. I was like, ‘No, there’s no way that went in.’ I guess it did.” It also means that Roddick joins Roger Federer in securing a title for the eleventh consecutive year, a tour best. Raonic, 20, was contesting his second straight final having shocked world No. 9 Fernando Verdasco to win the SAP Open last week. The new world No. 37 is now the highest ranked Canadian man in history. “It’s something really special and amazing,” said Raonic of his ranking. “It’s not by any means something to be too happy with because I want to keep improving that. It’s not where my goal lies. I want to keep improving, I want to keep progressing and developing and I think I can do a lot more.” Full fallout can be read at the ATP website.

Two in a Row for Almagro:

Nicolas Almagro of Spain recorded his 200th victory on the ATP Tour whilst also clinching his second straight title by defeating Juan Ignacio Chela 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 in the final of the Copa Claro in Buenos Aires. It is his ninth title (all have been on clay) while it is also his fifth triumph in South America. “It’s a very good feeling, I’m very happy after winning here and I hope it won’t just be nine titles in my career but a lot more,” said Almagro before speaking of his milestone win. “It’s a very high number and I hope I can keep getting to higher numbers in my career.” Chela was left to rue missed chances: “The key game was at 3-3 of the third set because I broke him the game before with great tennis but I couldn’t keep it up,” he said. “I had to be more aggressive with my serve during the match because his is very good.” For more go to the ATP site.

Djokovic to use Doubles to his Singles Advantage:

Following the defeat of Novak and Marko Djokovic in the doubles at Dubai by “The Indo Express” Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, the 2008 and 2011 Australian Open-winning Serbian Novak is keen to use such experiences to improve his serve and volley game for when he takes to the court to participate in singles play. He also hopes it will help his younger brother Marko get a taste for playing at the highest level. “Indian Wells I’m playing with [Viktor] Troicki; Miami with [Andy] Murray,” said the world No. 3. “One of the reasons playing doubles is to work on the serve and volley game and return. It’s good. It helps. Hopefully I can have fun with it as well. The main purpose for [Marko] here and in any professional event he plays is to learn. To get as much practice, as much experience as he can, and then use it afterwards. It’s a huge inspiration for him to see the best players in the world, and motivation.” Reaction from Bhupathi and Paes can be read at the ATP site.

Rafa to Return to Davis Cup:

Rafa Nadal will return to Davis Cup play for Spain for the first time since 2009 when they take on Belgium in Charleroi next month. He will line up alongside David Ferrer, Fernando Verdasco and Feliciano Lopez for what will be his first appearance on court since tearing a leg muscle against Ferrer in the quaterfinals of the Australian Open. Nadal’s last outing resulted in Spain lifting the prestigious event for the fourth time in their history and coach Albert Costa is confident the world No. 1’s injury problems will be behind him: “When Nadal joins our training camp, he’ll be in perfect condition.”

Henin “Regrets” Infamous ‘Hand Incident:’

Retired Belgian star Justine Henin has spoken further of her regret over that now infamous occasion during the semifinals of the 2003 French Open where her call to the umpire that she wasn’t ready to receive serve wasn’t spotted and Serena’s blast in to the net was deemed a fault. Henin’s failure to speak up led to Serena losing the next four games and, ultimately, the match. “I think she saw it and she was disturbed by that,” she told Belgian TV. “There is a lot of tension; actions are a bit by instinct. So it’s true that it is not the best memory. At the same time what happened was magic. I don’t know if that changed the match. Maybe it was a way to give me respect, because you know that Williams’ have an attitude, sometimes difficult. They play with a lot of intimidation. You need to know that when you play against a Williams and they walk on court.”

Rybarikova Secures Easy Title:

It’s probably not as she pictured it, but Magdalena Rybarikova secured her second WTA Tour title with a 6-2 retirement victory over Rebecca Marino in Memphis. “It first happened in the semifinals against [Evgeniya] Rodina [semifinal opponent],” the No. 6 seed Marino said of her left abdominal injury which forced her out. “As I kept playing today it got worse and worse. I’m upset I had to retire in the finals but I didn’t want to make the injury worse. If this injury gets worse, it’s an injury that would take a long time to recover from.” “I’m very sorry for Rebecca,” said Rybarikova. “I didn’t know she was injured, but I could tell when she was playing something wasn’t right. But still, congratulations to her on a great week. I saw her play a good match against [Franchesca] Schiavone in Australia, very aggressive like [Petra] Kvitova. She’ll be a great player.”

Déjà Vu for Lino:

It was a second coming for the Spaniard Lourdes Dominguez Lino who lifted her second WTA Tour title last week on the same courts where she lifted her first five years ago. She defeated first time WTA finalist Mathilde Johansson 2-6, 6-3, 6-2 to lift the XIX Copa BBVA Colsanitas in Bogata, Columbia. “It was a very difficult match today,” said the 29-year-old. “She started very well and I didn’t feel comfortable or in control of anything. But then she started making a few errors and little by little I was getting back into the match. Maybe she was nervous; I was very calm. It was a special feeling to win.”

Milestone for del Potro:

2009 US Open Winner Juan Martin del Potro registered the 150th victory of his career when he overcame the promising Lithuanian Richard Berankis 6-4, 6-1 at the Delray Beach International Tennis Championships this week.

Federer Aims To Retain Dominance:

Roger Federer has been speaking this week of his belief that he can continue to dominate tennis for the near future: “I am a better player now, but then I was young and there was no fear in me and you had nothing to lose,” said the 29-year-old world No. 2. “Sometimes it’s easier to play that way as well. It is hard to dominate because I have been doing it for so long, but I feel I still have it in me.”

Private Djokovic Loving Monaco Life:

Novak Djokovic has revealed that part of the reasoning behind he and girlfriend Jelena Ristic’s move to the tax haven of Monaco was the fact that he couldn’t go out in his native Serbia without being harassed. “I just don’t have my private life,” he said. “That’s what I looked for and I found it in Monaco. I just feel great spending time there. I miss a lot of things [about Serbia]. I miss the food, my family in general and my friends who are back there that I don’t get to see that often…but at this moment, I prefer staying somewhere else.”

Serena Comeback Delayed:

Serena Williams has now pulled out of the Nike Clash of Champions exhibition event in Oregon scheduled for March 8. Victoria Azarenka will take her place.

Bogdanovic Back for Britain:

World No. 368 Alex Bogdanovic will return for Great Britain in their Davis Cup Europe/Africa Group II match against Tunisia next month having not featured since 2008. He missed play during 2010 saying he wanted to improve his ranking but has now agreed to return to the fold. He will line up alongside world No. 212 James Ward, Jamie Baker and doubles specialists Colin Fleming and Jamie Murray, older brother of world No. 5 Andy who, again, will not participate. “This is a team with the experience, ability and passion to win this tie,” said the new captain Leon Smith. “Hard work and a good team spirit will also be key to a successful start to our 2011 campaign. I’m really looking forward to the match and I am sure the home fans will get behind the team to ensure a good result.”

Rankings Watch:

Milos Raonic of Canada continues his amazing story by becoming the highest ranked Canadian man ever at No. 37 in the world in the South Africa Airways ATP World Rankings. Marcos Baghdatis re-enters the Top 20 with Marin Cilic hot on his heels by climbing 7 to No. 21. The USA’s Robert Kendrick leaps 27 to No. 83 in the world while Philipp Petzschner drops 13 to No. 73 and Julien Benneteau is down 14 to No. 80. Another American, Michael Russell, jumps 17 to re-enter the Top 100 at No. 90. In the Sony Ericsson WTA World Rankings the Danish beauty Caroline Wozniacki has returned to the summit of the sport after her win in Dubai relegated Kim Clijsters back to No. 2. Aussie Sam Stosur is a career-high No. 4 in the world but has a lot of ranking points to defend in the coming weeks. Alisa Kleybanova is the new world No. 20, a career-high, while Ayumi Morita also posted a new best by jumping in to the Top 50 at No. 48. There were also big leaps for Lourdes Dominguez Lino (26 places, No. 51), Rebecca Marino (20, No. 60, career best), Magdalena Rybarikova (38, No. 67) and Mathilde Johansson (27, No. 71). Coco Vandeweghe enters the Top 100 for the first time at No. 93.

Rodger Edges Forward in GOAT Race:

With Rafa Nadal still out injured Roger’s appearance in Dubai adds another ten points to his lead:

Roger: 340 Rafa: 130