Dubai: One often wonders what separates the men from the boys in men’s tennis. For a long time, 17-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer was seen more as the man while Novak Djokovic was the boy. That’s no longer the case, though, as the affable Serb has powered to the top of the world rankings and will be the main obstacle between Federer and a historic sixth title at this year’s Dubai Duty Free Championship.
Federer and Djokovic will not have Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal or David Ferrer for company, but a host of other top players will have hopes of upsetting the ‘big two’, including Tomas Berdych (No 6), Juan Martin del Potro (No 7) and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga (No 8).
However, whether they can prevent a Federer-Djokovic final is debatable.
Much has been written about the success of Federer and the way he managed to rule the world of men’s tennis until the arrival of a young band of players, starting with the likes of Rafael Nadal and followed in recent times by Murray and Djokovic.
And despite the fact that he will turn 32 later this year, the Swiss star still has it in him to be genuinely competitive with any of the young guns.
And he also feels perfectly at home at one of his favourite places in the world.
“I’ve just got to be really focused and be confident in my own play and I hope to start well,” Federer said.
“I love playing in Dubai for many reasons. I’ve had an incredible run over the years now and I’m really happy to be coming back this year.
“In a way you feel pressure [as defending champion] but you’re also extremely happy and honoured to be back to get the opportunity to defend your title. But you know if you lose in the first round, 500 [ranking] points are gone. So you want to make sure you start the tournament well.”
Meanwhile, much of the credit for Djokovic’s success on the tour has been given to his ‘backroom team’, and perhaps, rightly so.
At the end of 2009, Djokovic had pinpointed weaknesses in his game and physical conditioning.
He confirmed his hunger to be the world’s best player thus: “To reach the goal of world No 1, I’m going to have to be very successful at the major tournaments,” he had said. “I haven’t done a great job at the Grand Slams.”
But initially, success for him was modest in 2010, with a loss in the US Open final to Nadal preceded by a semi-final defeat to Berdych at Wimbledon. Whether that served as a catalyst to an incredible 2011 is anyone’s guess, but it was certainly a good starting point for the Serb as all his plans fell into place.
Over the past two years, Djokovic has improved his serve, fitness and lost a lot of weight. And while these aspects have been well highlighted many times, people who have followed him closely will definitely agree that the standout point of his game is his sharp mind and intelligence on court.
Like Federer, Djokovic also relishes playing here, as he admitted earlier this week. “Dubai is always a great tournament,” he said. “A lot of the players have the same opinion as me. We feel very comfortable in this tournament. The site is great and the weather of course is fantastic and the organisers make us feel really good. I really look forward to coming back. You always have very good and intensive matches here and the attendance is great.”
The Federer-Djokovic rivalry is also one of the biggest in Grand Slam history, with the pair having played each other a record 11 times, the Swiss ace leading their head-to-head 6-5. On hard courts, Federer leads 12-10 after their 22 meetings.
The Dubai Duty Free Championship might not be a Grand Slam, but when you have two players in Federer and Djokovic going head to head, it’s certainly no second-rate affair.