Scanning the bold-faced names in the ATP Dubai draw, one almost might mistake it for the draw at a Masters 1000 tournament or even major if not for its size. Eight of the top ten men have travelled to the desert before the desert, which alone should send expectations soaring as high as the Burj Khalifa. When one scans the other names on the draw, though, it resembles a standard 500-level tournament more closely with its lack of early-round sizzle. (All the same, the Memphis tournament organizers surely would salivate over the opportunity to welcome such a star-studded array of top dogs.) We take one half at a time below.
Top half: If any fatigue lingers from his Melbourne exertions, Djokovic will find his quarter a comforting respite. Of the players who could threaten him before the semifinals, only Tipsarevic causes one to raise an eyebrow—momentarily. The second-ranked Serb did defeat his compatriot at the World Tour Finals last fall and has snatched sets from on other occasions, including the US Open. A draining battle through the first two sets, that potentially epic collision in New York ended prematurely when Tipsarvice retired, leaving one to speculate about the road not taken. En route to reaching the semifinals in Marseille, Janko defeated Ivan Ljubicic in a pair of tight sets. The same opponent likely will await him in the second round here, while Djokovic should feast upon light-hitting Ukrainian Sergiy Stakhovsky. Until Saturday, the greatest intrigue might surround how many games the world #1 will yield. On the other hand, he has struggled against unexpected opponents in the early rounds of Dubai before, losing sets to Hernych and Lopez. Not for nothing, though, has the Serb won fifteen straight matches here, his best current streak at any tournament.
Aligned to face the three-time defending champion in the semifinals is Murray, who extended Djokovic to the brink of defeat at both of their semifinal meetings since the start of 2011. The Scot has not always enjoyed his sojourns of the Gulf, where he lost a second-round match to then-#39 Tipsarevic two years ago and dismissively said that he considered this tournament mere “practice.” Considering his unremarkable performances at Indian Wells and Miami in each of the last two years, Murray might want to take his “practice” more seriously this time. One senses that he may encounter stern resistance from a suddenly resurgent (perhaps) Davydenko, who played well above his current ranking of #49 in winning sets from Federer and Del Potro this month. While Murray generally has defused the Russian before, he cannot afford to enter that match in deflated fashion, as he might if he looks at what comes next. A round later, and one round before Djokovic, he probably will need to snap a three-match losing streak against Berdych. Only once in five appearances here has the lumbering Czech won more than one match, but he has become more consistent in recent months and should fancy his chances against Memphis semifinalist Benjamin Becker. Although he lost a round earlier than Murray in Melbourne, Berdych has looked ominously (and uncharacteristically) determined of late.
Semifinal: Djokovic d. Berdych
Bottom half: Beware, Djokovic has become so dominant that he now occupies not one but two lines on the draw! In reality, his younger brother Marko has received a wildcard into the third quarter, and in fact a winnable match against the mercurial Andrey Golubev. After playing a three-hour semifinal in Marseille on Saturday, Tsonga and Del Potro could meet just six days later in a Dubai quarterfinal. But they have drawn arguably the most challenging pair of first-round meetings with any seed, facing Baghdatis and Dolgopolov respectively. In a tournament where no player outside the top 10 earned a seed, those two charismatic underdogs qualify as very dangerous floaters indeed, especially against possibly tired opponents. Can Dolgopolov’s idiosyncratic style ruffle the calm of Del Potro, who has dominated most opponents other than Federer in 2012? Meanwhile, Baghdatis has reached the semifinals in the shadow of the Burj Khalifa before, extending Djokovic to a third set on that occasion. A champion in Doha this year, Tsonga has played its counterpart tournament only once before.
Having salved his wounds from the Australian Open and Davis Cup with a Rotterdam title, Federer would benefit even further from a strong week near one of his residences. All three players nearest him in the draw revolve around rushing the net behind well-placed serves, a tactic that sometimes can trouble the Swiss as his timing has declined slightly. Potential second-round foe Lopez won a set from at the US Open near his peak, moreover, and nearly upset him on clay in Madrid last year. Even more mystifying than usual in 2012, the sixth-seeded Fish once seemed destined to meet Federer in a Davis Cup fourth rubber. Less than a month later, that clash could happen in a quarterfinal here. Although the American #1 defeated the 16-time major champion at Indian Wells in 2008, he recently has lost on hard courts to players like Falla, Dimitrov, and the world #388 Albano Olivetti (who, to be fair, should reduce the number next to his name soon). Before Federer fillets Fish, former runner-up Youzhny might disrupt the latter’s path if he has recovered from a painful shoulder injury. Before then, Gasquet might seek revenge for two five-set losses to the Russian at the Australian Open and Davis Cup. Either might defeat Fish, but neither has defeated Federer on a hard court in eleven attempts.
Semifinal: Federer d. Tsonga
Final: Djokovic d. Federer