Top Tier Players Return After Australia
The ATP World Tour stops in Dubai for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. It is one of two 500-level tournaments this week with the other being in Acapulco. Dubai draws the eye of The Pig with a loaded field, including the on-court return of Australian Open Champion Roger Federer. Federer has been off since delighting the world last month in Melbourne. This week’s third seed is an astounding 45-7 in his career in Dubai with seven titles. His last came in 2015. He’ll be seeded behind Andy Murray and last year’s champion, Stan Wawrinka. Murray has been fairly scarce at this tournament with just an 11-4 career mark. His best effort came in 2012, when he lost in the final to Federer. Otherwise, he’s failed to get past the quarterfinals in his four other visits.
Wawrinka had not played in Dubai since 2008, but obviously made the most of his return last year. He was helped a bit though with Novak Djokovic retiring in the quarterfinals due to an eye problem. That left Marcos Baghdatis as the man he would see in the final. It did turn out to be a difficult 6-4, 7-6 (13) win, but certainly more preferred for the Swiss who wound up facing only one seed en route to the title. That was a quarterfinal win over (8) Philipp Kohlschreiber. Rounding out the top four seeds in 2017 is Gael Monfils. Perhaps La Monf is trying to pull a #Stanimal, making his return to Dubai for the first time since 2008. Monfils lost his lone career match here that year to Tomas Berdych.
Remaining Seeds Short on Success
With Murray, Wawrinka, Federer and Monfils as the top four seeds, it might seem a bit fat duh to say that the seeds weaken after that quartet. They do, but there’s some talent still there with Berdych as the five, Roberto Bautista Agut as the six, Lucas Pouille seventh and Gilles Muller concluding your seeds this week. Berdych has the most experience and success in Dubai of the remaining seeds with a 22-10 career mark. He’s made the final twice and advanced to at least the quarterfinals in each of the last six years.
RBA made the quarters last year, but is just 5-4 overall in Dubai. Pouille makes the main draw for the first time without having to go through qualifying. He made the main draws in 2015 and 2016 through qualis, but was ousted each time in the opening round. The Frenchman finally caught fire in Marseille this past week, making the semifinals. Prior to that, Pouille had gone just 1-3 to start the season. Muller has played Dubai just once, losing in 2015 to Andy Murray.
Quarter #1 Seeds
Andy Murray (1)
Gilles Muller (8)
It will be interesting to see what frame of mind Murray is in this week after plenty of time off following his shock loss to Mischa Zverev at the Australian Open. He has history against him as the top seed. The top seed has only won Dubai twice since 2009 and both times, it was Novak Djokovic. Still, this is a chance for Murray to re-establish himself as the top dog. He opens with Malek Jaziri. The two have never met. Jaziri can be a tough customer, but he doesn’t have anything that should hurt Murray over the course of the match. Still, there is the possibility of some rust, so Jaziri could keep it close for a bit. The winner gets Viktor Troicki or Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. GGL broke an eleven match losing skid in Delray Beach last week with a win over Dustin Brown. Troicki has owned him though to the tune of 5-1 overall, but GGL won their most recent match in 2015 indoors. Troicki is also just 1-5 in Dubai, so GGL could potentially have a shot.
Muller’s half sees him open with a tough customer in Philipp Kohlschreiber. Kohli won the lone previous meeting at this level against Muller, but they have not met since 2011. The 32-year-old German is 8-7 in Dubai, but he’s made the quarters and semis in his last two trips here. An upset is possible. The survivor there will advance to play either Daniil Medvedev or wild card Omar Alawadhi. It’s an obvious mismatch, so unless the young Russian has trouble transitioning back outdoors, he should win comfortably. There’s nothing terribly tough about this quarter for Murray, assuming he’s mentally sharp. If he is and his play follow suit, expect him to get through this quarter.
Quarter #2 Seeds
Roger Federer (3)
Lucas Pouille (7)
Federer draws the mercurial Benoit Paire to start. Fed hasn’t had much issue with Paire in three prior meetings, but the last came in 2013. Paire has never played Dubai before, so that should help Federer even more so with the conditions often tricky outdoors. A win for Federer pits him against either Mikhail Youzhny or a qualifier. That should be another comfortable match-up for the Swiss. Youzhny is one of Fed’s favorite punching bags with an 0-16 record against him in their careers.
Pouille will be afforded the chance to start well, if he can acclimate to the conditions after a long week in France. Losing in a Sunday final though, he’s a Championship Hangover candidate. He opens with Adam Pavlasek. The Czech is just 3-4 at the ATP level and can be pesky at-times, so Pouille will need to be strong to open. The winner advances to play Jan-Lennard Struff or a qualifier. Struff got his first win of 2017 at the Moselle Open and then narrowly lost in a third set tiebreak to Medvedev in the next round.
You have to like the set-up for Federer here so long as he doesn’t show rust from the time off. One would think the Swiss will be eager to continue the superb form he found in Australia and continue to move back up the rankings. Pouille would loom as the toughest foe here, but the quick flip from indoors in France could leave him a bit flat this week.
Quarter #3 Seeds
Gael Monfils (4)
Roberto Bautista Agut (6)
Monfils gets Mohamed Safwat to open this week. It’s obviously a favorable match-up for Monfils to get an opening round win. That would set him up to face off against Dustin Brown or Daniel Evans. That would pose a significantly tougher time for the Frenchman. Evans would have to be considered the favorite with Brown struggling a bit with a back problem the last few weeks. That was shown in a poor loss to Garcia-Lopez in Delray Beach. Monfils-Evans would be quite the show in round two and Evans has shown the ability to play extremely tough against higher level competition.
Bautista Agut is on high alert for an upset in round one against talented Russian Karen Khachanov. The 20-year old beat RBA on clay last year in Barcelona and despite a four match losing streak, has been a really tough out in every tournament. RBA probably has the more consistent game to finish off Khachanov, but it won’t be easy. Opposite of those two are Florian Mayer and Fernando Verdasco. Mayer owns a 3-1 edge, but they haven’t met in a decade and the German is 0-4 on tour this season. Verdasco hasn’t done a ton either since Doha, so this is a real toss-up.
RBA probably has the best form here, but Monfils is the wild card. The match-ups do favor him, including a 3-0 mark against Bautista Agut. If he can find some good form early and get rolling, he could be the one to beat. I would not be entirely shocked though if this quarter gets blown up a bit with an upset or two.
Quarter #4 Seeds
Stan Wawrinka (2)
Tomas Berdych (5)
Wawrinka will seek back-to-back titles in Dubai to join Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic as the only players to do so. Wawrinka opens with Damir Dzumhur. Dzumhur is just 3-5 this season, but he’s one of those pesky players. He took Juan Martin Del Potro to three sets in Delray Beach last week and certainly could push Wawrinka. This is Stan’s first outing since the Australian Open. I’d be surprised though if Dzumhur pulls it off. The winner there gets either Marcel Granollers or Jiri Vesely. Granollers owns a win over Vesely last year in Cincinnati, but arrives having lost four straight. Vesely is 4-5 this season. Vesely lost his only match in Dubai last year to Borna Coric, while Granollers is 2-2 in two trips with both losses to Federer. Pick your poison.
The bottom half of the draw is incomplete with qualifying yet to be completed. Berdych takes on a qualifier to open and then meets Robin Haase or a qualifier. Haase has been playing fairly well lately, proving to be a tough out. He has never played Dubai though, so watch out for who the qualifier is opposite of him. Lukas Rosol has qualified already with three slots left to be determined. There is some talent vying for those last spots like Andreas Seppi, Evgeny Donskoy and Denis Istomin. There could be some noise made by the qualifiers here.
Wawrinka and Berdych definitely have the tracks laid down to get through to the quarterfinals. I’m a bit hesitant on Wawrinka as Non-Slam Stan is always in the back of my mind. If Stan can get off to a good start, then this sets up well for him. He’s won six straight against Berdych, but it’s that first match that will tell the tale for Wawrinka.
Early Bird Specials
Dubai hasn’t been a beacon for early upsets, but it has produced a few each year. Over the last four years, two seeds have dropped out in round one in three of four years. Don’t look for the top four seeds to be part of that equation however as the top four seeds have made the quarterfinals three of the last four years. That fourth year, the one, three and four still made it. So, if an early upset happens it looks like the back end of the seeded field is where to find that. Muller is my first choice. The 8th seed has the toughest opener to me amongst the seeds with Kohlschreiber. Bautista Agut would be #2 on this week’s list strictly due to match-up with Khachanov despite the Russian’s losing streak. I do feel Pouille is a candidate as well as he’ll be coming off a Sunday match.
Last year was an anomaly with Marcos Baghdatis making the final as a non-seeded player. That is the only time that a non-seed has made the final in the last four years and it’s only happened one other time since 2008. Feliciano Lopez did the trick that year. Non-seeds do have a habit of sneaking into the quarterfinals however with at least two non-seeds accomplishing that in each of the last four years. With that focus, the guys who could slip into the quarters in my mind are Kohlschreiber, Medvedev and maybe Evans as a longer shot. Do take notice of who makes it out of qualifying. There are some good competitors in that field that is scheduled to finish on Monday due to a rain delay on Sunday.
AND THAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE BECAUSE THE PIG SAID SO …
This top heavy draw looks as if it should shake out for one of the big boys to take hom the title. With the top seed having trouble claiming the title recently, I’m looking to Federer and Wawrinka as the two favorites. I think I trust Federer a bit more to have the desire in this spot. The sneaky pick among the seeds to upset the apple cart would be Monfils. You never know what you’re getting, but his quarter had good enough match-ups for him to get on a roll and drive into the final.