ABU DHABI // The official slogan is catchy: "The global tennis season starts here."
But the Mubadala World Tennis Championship is perhaps best known for this: a line-up that would flatter the final weekend of any grand slam tournament.
The capital's six-man collection of tennis talent includes Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, David Ferrer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and those five ended the 2011 season ranked Nos 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6 in the world.
The sixth player in Abu Dhabi this week is Gael Monfils, who was No 7 in July and currently is No 16.
"I had the invitation and I said 'of course'. It is a great invitation to come and play with the world's top players," said Monfils, who is playing here for the first time. "It is the best possible preparation for the season."
Djokovic also is a newcomer to the three-day tournament, now in its fourth year, which begins today and concludes on Saturday. The possibility of the world No 1 playing all three days helps explain why all tickets are sold out for tomorrow's semi-finals at the Abu Dhabi International Tennis Complex at Zayed Sports City, and why nearly all tickets are gone for today and Saturday.
"It is an amazing way to start the year," Federer said recently. "Abu Dhabi does a great job of welcoming players to the area, the fans are amazing, the crowds are great, the hospitality is perfect and you are almost guaranteed to have nice weather. And competitive matches, which help you get a jump start to the new year."
Djokovic faces Monfils in the second match today, which will not begin before 5pm. In the 3pm match, Ferrer plays Tsonga.
"I'm looking forward to playing my best tennis, practice some shots and have some good wins from some very good players," Tsonga said yesterday.
Monfils has never beaten Djokovic as a professional; the Serb is 8-0 against the Frenchman.
But Monfils was the more dominant player as a junior; he won three of the four junior majors in 2004, and defeated Djokovic in three sets at Bergamo.
Monfils smiled when asked if remembered his victory over the current world No 1. "It was a long time ago but, actually, it was great," he said. "I remember all of the matches I have played. It's a good first match, to play 'Nole' again. It's always good to play the top player. I'm very happy."
The tournament is not an official ATP event; no rankings points are at stake. But the tournament's status can make for compelling competition. "As an exhibition, it is without pressure," Monfils said. "The score means nothing. And then also you can go for more shots and try more stuff, because it's no pressure."
Both Djokovic and Tsonga have said they will work on the serve-and-volley aspect of their games here, but no player reaches the lofty positions in their sport that these six have without the sort of competitive spirits that make any match a "must-win" match.
Nadal is the two-time defending champion here, and he will play the winner of the Ferrer-Tsonga match in the second match tomorrow. Federer, who has yet to win here despite perfect attendance, awaits the Djokovic-Monfils survivor in the early match tomorrow.
Federer ended the 2011 season as the hottest player on the tour; he ran off 15 consecutive victories while winning at Basel, the Paris Masters and the ATP World Tour Finals in London.
Djokovic, conversely, struggled with a sore shoulder over the final months of the season; four of his six defeats during the 2011 season came after the US Open, the final slam event and the third that he won during the year, after the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
The Mubadala event also is known for a level of interaction between players and public not seen on the ATP tour.
All six players will make appearances at the Tennis Village, erected just outside the stadium, and clinics will be held each of the three days. Today, Ferrer will be signing autographs in the Tennis Village at 11am and Federer will appear at 11.30am.
Also today, Nadal will lead a clinic at 11am for the Under 10 and Under 12 winners of the Mubadala Community Cup competition, and Monfils' coach, Patrick Chamagne, will hold a clinic at noon for the Abu Dhabi Club for Special Needs.