The Dubai Tennis Championships are renowned for giving sports fans a feast of racket-thwacking entertainment. Last year Novak Djokovic defeated Spaniard David Ferrer to clinch the title; this year the injury-free Roger Federer steps off the plane having hammered Andy Murray at the Australian Open. Defending women’s champ Venus Williams is also in town, hungry for a trophy that eluded her last month in Melbourne. Added to that volatile mix are the young guns: the plethora of players under 21 includes 19-year-old Danish powerhouse Caroline Wozniacki, who reached the number four slot last year, and 20-year-old Belgian Yanina Wickmayer, who lost to Wozniacki in the US Open semi-finals. Finally, there are a handful of seasoned pros who still have something to prove here in Dubai (hello Murray!). The action kicks off at Dubai Tennis Stadium in Garhoud on February 14. Want to know more? Here’s the lowdown on the players to watch.
For the average sporting professional, the game itself is enough. The hours, days and years given to a life on the pro circuit tend to allow little room for much else, unless it’s classed as a quick appearance for a fat cheque. Then again, Venus Williams, 20 times Grand Slam champ and owner of three Olympic gold medals, is anything but average. Having turned professional in 1994, Williams spent the early half of her career decimating the competition, and the latter half thumping a ball at the only player who can still consistently return it: her younger sister (by 15 months), Serena. Walking out on court to face your sibling game after game, year after year must get a little dull (it clearly is for the pair’s mother – after another Williams sister Australian Open final, she told Australia’s Herald Sun that she wore sunglasses so she could go to sleep). But Venus denies that things have become stale. ‘I don’t think you can say it’s boring when you’re giving 100 per cent to win every point,’ she insists. ‘It can only get boring if it gets too easy.’
Despite this claim, Venus attracts just as many headlines off the court as she does on. While Serena is content with raising eyebrows over her choice of trenchcoat at Wimbledon, or knee-high boots at the US Open, Venus has opted to tackle the fashion industry from within, forming clothing label EleVen and interior design company V Star Interior.
Venus can also claim a key part in convincing the suits at Wimbledon to break with tradition and pay equal prize money to male and female players, a move backed by former UK prime minister Tony Blair. ‘The message I like to convey to women is that there is no glass ceiling,’ she stated. ‘My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message.’ Wimbledon cracked, France quickly followed and in June 2009 Forbes magazine named her number 77 in its Top 100 Most Powerful Celebrities list (just behind tennis rival Maria Sharapova, but one place ahead of Heidi Klum).
That Venus will do well in Dubai is a given. She is clearly comfortable in the emirate – ‘Last year we stayed at the Park Hyatt. It was calm, relaxing and I had a good time’ – and has the added advantage of being defending champion. But the chance of her stepping onto court in the headline-grabbing tennis attire she wore in Melbourne is less likely. The yellow micro dress with a plunging neckline that nearly caused a few heart failures Down Under is now undoubtedly in a securely locked suitcase on its way back to the States. And whatever happens on the court this year, one thing is for certain – for Venus Williams at least, the game is never enough.
Ones to watch
The Swiss legend, who once said he ‘would like to be Lenny Kravitz’, seems to have only one weakness: he needs to sleep. And even that has not been proven. Andy Murray will be champing at the bit for a rematch.
The reigning champ and world number two is back to show that last year was no fluke. This time, however, Murray and Federer are back in the running. Djokovic has the ability, but does he have the confidence?
The fiery Scotsman has proved his worth as a Grand Slam contender, and media attention has now turned on his coach and support team, rather than the player’s own ability. If he digs deep, he may surprise us yet.
Juan Martin del Potro
Last year the Argentine was on fire, rated fifth in the world and crowned US Open champion. This year, plagued by a nagging wrist injury, Porto looks tired. But if he’s going to shine, this is his time.
He’s beaten Nadal, he’s beaten Federer, and when he thrashed Fernando Verdasco in Melbourne, he humiliated him further by branding him ‘mentally weak’. Think the bad guy in Rocky IV and you’re almost there.
Undoubtedly tired from her victory in Melbourne, the world number one is still the clear favourite to take the Dubai title. Her sister is here, too, although is unlikely to topple Serena. S Williams v Federer? Now there’s a match we’d love to see.
With Dinara Safina out following a recurring back injury, things look optimistic for Azarenka. The Belarusian gave Serena Williams a scare in Melbourne last month, and will be looking to capitalise on that momentum in Dubai.
With so much hope (and pressure) riding on her at Melbourne, Wozniacki failed to make her mark, crashing out in the fourth round by losing four straight games. But she’s still young enough to bounce back, so the pressure’s on again.
The French Open champion is not afraid of controversy – she has publicly complained about having to play late-night matches, and stayed awake in Melbourne by climbing in with the spectators to watch Nadal play Kohlschreiber.
We’d love to see Venus retain her title and, as defending champion, history is on her side. But if there are no upsets, Venus will once again play her sister in the final (and if history is anything to go by, the odds are stacked in Serena’s favour).