DUBAI: The 30th edition of the men’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships kicks off on Monday with all eyes firmly fixed on top seed Novak Djokovic.
Here are some of the main storylines to look out for this week.
Djokovic set for season debut
World No.1 Novak Djokovic will commence his 2022 season in Dubai after missing the action Down Under due to the cancellation of his visa and eventual deportation from Australia last month.
The Serb told the BBC in an interview earlier this week he has not been vaccinated against COVID-19 and is willing to forgo participation in future tournaments if there is a vaccine mandate at such events.
He will face no such issues in Dubai, however, given the UAE is open to unvaccinated visitors.
Djokovic will be competing for the first time since the Davis Cup Finals last December, and he begins his quest for a sixth Dubai title against Italian wildcard Lorenzo Musetti.
Should he move past the 57th-ranked teenager, Djokovic would face the winner of the clash between Karen Khachanov and Alex de Minaur before a potential quarterfinal against 2018 champion and No.8 seed Roberto Bautista Agut.
Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov are possible semifinal opponents for Djokovic, with the likes of defending champion Aslan Karatsev, Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner and wildcard former Wimbledon winner Andy Murray all landing on the opposite side of the draw.
No.1 ranking on the line
Besides being dealt a tricky path in his first tournament of the season, Djokovic also has his No.1 ranking to think about.
Russian Daniil Medvedev will dethrone Djokovic at the top of the rankings on Feb. 28 if he clinches the title in Acapulco at the Mexican Open next week.
Djokovic begins his record 361st week as world No.1 on Monday, but his current streak of 86 consecutive weeks at the summit could come to an end based on his results in Dubai and Medvedev’s progress in Acapulco.
Even if Medvedev does not win the title in Mexico, there are other scenarios where the Russian can replace Djokovic at the top.
It all adds an extra layer of excitement to the Dubai tournament, and could perhaps place some added pressure on Djokovic in his first event back.
Wildcards forced to change practice plans
Musetti, Tunisian Malek Jaziri and former world No.1 Murray are three wildcard recipients in Dubai this year.
During the draw ceremony, Musetti and Jaziri shared a laugh when they found out that the players they were scheduled to practice with on Saturday afternoon ended up being their first-round opponents.
“He’s supposed to practice with Novak and I’m supposed to practice with (Filip) Krajinovic. So maybe we’ll practice together now,” joked Jaziri, who is a former semifinalist in Dubai.
Musetti will face Djokovic in a rematch of their 2021 Roland Garros fourth round, which saw the Italian teenager lead the world No.1 by two sets to love before retiring late in the fifth set.
“I’m always not the lucky one but I think it will be a nice experience playing on Center Court with a full crowd. I really enjoy it and I’ll try to take my revenge for Roland Garros from last year,” said Musetti.
“Of course I was playing my best tennis, it was completely on another surface but of course I learned a lot from that match. I learned I could be at that level. Let’s hope I will be at that level again on Monday or Tuesday night, whenever I’m playing, on the Center Court. I’ll enjoy myself and I’ll try to take out the first seed.”
Just as was the case during the WTA week in Dubai, the men’s tournament is stacked and features four of the world’s top 10 and eight of the world’s top 16.
Some of the first round clashes to look out for — besides Djokovic’s showdown with Musetti — include former top 10 player Khachanov taking on world No.32 De Minaur, Hungarian Marton Fucsovics tackling No.6 seed Denis Shapovalov, Spaniard Alejandro Davidovich Fokina facing off with No.4 seed Jannik Sinner, third-seeded Felix Auger-Aliassime squaring off with Nikoloz Basilashvili, and No.5 seed Hubert Hurkacz opening against tricky Kazakhstani Alexander Bublik.
Tough task for late arrivals
A host of players have made it deep in tournaments this week and will have little time to adapt to new conditions in Dubai.
Auger-Aliassime and No.2 seed Andrey Rublev are still in Marseille, where they have reached the semifinals of the Open 13, and will have to acclimate to playing outdoors in the Dubai heat after competing indoors these past few days in France.
Over in Doha, Bautista Agut and Basilashvili are contesting the final of the Qatar Open on Saturday, while Khachanov exited the tournament on Friday in the semis.
The Russian, who is a Dubai resident, was already spotted in the Emirates on Saturday, enjoying some sun by the pool with his wife and son.
Another opportunity for Murray
After reaching the final in his second tournament of the season in Sydney last month, Murray has not been able to win back-to-back matches at any of his past three events.
The 34-year-old Scot has fond memories in Dubai, where he won the title in 2017, nine years after upsetting Roger Federer on his tournament debut.
Murray begins his campaign against a qualifier, with Sinner or Davidovich Fokina lying ahead as possible second round opponents.