ABU DHABI // When an injured Jo-Wilfried Tsonga was forced to miss last year's tournament in the UAE capital, the withdrawal served as a warning of hard times ahead in the Frenchman's 2010 season.
As he prepares for his first appearance in Abu Dhabi tomorrow, he is hoping the season-opening exhibition this weekend can once again provide an indication of how the coming year will unfold.
Tsonga, 25, suffered a series of injuries in 2010 that resulted in him competing in only 14 tournaments in 12 months. Now fit again - and according to him, fitter than ever before - he is determined to get his season off to the best possible start at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
"It was frustrating, yes, but it also means I am fresh," Tsonga said of his lack of action last season. "I missed a lot of things at the end of the year and I just want to play now. That's it.
"If I can win some matches here, I will have beaten some very good players and I will gain confidence from that because I will know I can do it again later in the season."
Tsonga faces Robin Soderling tomorrow at Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex and having failed to defeat the Swedish world No 5 in three previous meetings, the match offers him the perfect opportunity to boost self-belief.
"I have never beaten him, so it would be nice to do it here. When you lose every time against the same person, you begin to dream about just beating him that one time. Then to do that, you know it is not impossible. I hope to beat him, gain that confidence and momentum and take it into the season," he said.
Soderling achieved a similar goal on centre court last year, battling back from a set and break down against Roger Federer to beat the Swiss for the first time and secure a place in the tournament's final.
The Swede kept that personal triumph in mind when he met Federer at Roland Garros almost six months later and beat him in the quarter-finals of the French Open.
"The win here helped for sure," Soderling said yesterday. "Every match I play against Roger is so tough, but beating him here for the first time gave me a lot of confidence in the future matches.
"To beat him in Paris in a Grand Slam quarter-final was one of the biggest wins of my career, so Abu Dhabi really helped me."
Soderling added: "Even though this is an exhibition, we both treated it like a real match and it showed me that I really can beat him."
Both players are aiming to use Abu Dhabi as a catapult to success in the season's first major, the Australian Open in Melbourne from January 17, but Tsonga refuses to set himself any concrete targets until he is comfortable that his body is robust enough for the demands of a long ATP season.
"Just now, I do not have any set targets," he said. "After three or four tournaments I will know more because first I need to see how my body responds. It is a long season, but by the end, though, I want to finish in the top five and win a major. If that were to happen, I would deem 2011 a success."
If last year is anything to go by, victory tomorrow will indicate if high targets can be realised.