x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Novak Djokovic the darling of Dubai returns

With Roger Federer having lost in the semi-finals, the crowd was rooting for the world No 1 in the summit clash. The Serb did not disappoint.

Novak Djokovic has time and again proved to be resilient after being on the backfoot. It was no different in Dubai. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters
Novak Djokovic has time and again proved to be resilient after being on the backfoot. It was no different in Dubai. Ahmed Jadallah / Reuters

In the end, it proved to be comfortable and another straight sets victory for the men's world No 1 tennis player.

Yesterday, in front of an adoring crowd, Novak Djokovic showed that on and off the court, he is fast establishing himself as the new darling of Dubai tennis fans.

The Serbian overcame a patchy opening to defeat sixth-ranked Tomas Berdych 7-5, 6-3 and claim his fourth Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title in five years.

While it was likely some in the crowd would have been disappointed that five-time Dubai winner Roger Federer was not in the final, that would hugely discredit Berdych's dramatic semi-final win over the Swiss on Friday, and certainly he was a worthy opponent for Djokovic.

But in the absence of Federer, the fans were clearly there to see Djokovic yesterday. The Serbian flag easily outnumbered the Czech one, and there was little doubt who most of the neutrals wanted to win, with a number of banners declaring support for him too.

But it took a while for him to get going. Berdych started off superbly, doing to Djokovic what Djokovic usually does to others. One particular cross court shot, which earned him the first break of the match, was magnificent from the No 3 seed.

Perhaps Berdych was tired following that energy-sapping win over Federer, where he saved three match points before going on to win in three sets, as he was unable to keep his performance levels up.

But, even taking that into account, Djokovic's superiority in the second set was clear. The end brought huge cheers from the crowd, and minutes later Djokovic repaid the compliment.

"It's been a thrilling week and I want to thank you all for coming out," he addressed his swooning fans, before claiming the Dubai event to be "one of the best tournaments in the world". Right now, wherever in the world he plays, he seems unbeatable. His record in 2013 reads: 13 played, 13 won.

So what next for a man increasingly imposing total dominance on the men's game having started the year off so well by winning the Australian Open for a fourth time in January?

More grand slam titles, to add to the six he has won already, look inevitable.

He has already made it clear that the French Open, the one major he has yet to win, remains the priority for him in the months ahead.

Should he win on the famous red clay of Roland Garros in June, he would become only the eighth player to have won a career grand slam - namely winning the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open at least once.

The signs, considering where his two main rivals stand at this point in time, are positive.

Federer, of course remains a formidable force, but at 31, there is little that the great man has yet to prove, and he hinted at the start of the week that he will be dialling down his tournament commitments.

While he has time and again proven the folly of writing him off, there is a real chance that the Centre Court at Dubai's Aviation Club has now seen the last of his triumphs, with the most recent of his quintet coming last year.

Nadal, meanwhile, looked set a few years ago to have a firm grip on that No 1 spot for years to come.

But injuries and the development of Djokovic from being simply a good player to a great one has meant that since the end of 2010 the Spaniard's grand slam success has come solely in France, where he has seven titles to his name.

Djokovic's chances of winning at Roland Garros will greatly depend on the presence and fitness of Nadal, who is on the comeback trail from the knee injury suffered last June that curtailed his 2012 season.

Djokovic looks to have shaken off both Federer and Nadal's challenges, although Andy Murray, now ranked world No 3, who defeated him in the 2012 US Open final, could yet emerge as his biggest rival.

Above all, Djokovic seems to be blessed with amazing powers of recovery, a point best illustrated by his performances at the Australian Open in 2012.

In both the semi-final, against Murray, and the final, against Nadal, he, at times, looked off his feet, barely able to catch his breath.

He recovered in both, clinching the title after the longest match in Australian Open history.

On Thursday, he looked to be in serious trouble against Juan Martin del Potro in the semi-final but after going 3-0 down in the second set, he rallied to defeat the in-form Argentine in a tiebreak.

Yesterday, he did not need to dig deep into that bottomless well of resilience. Just like Federer in his pomp, he seemed to do exactly enough to to raise his game at key moments. And now, the Swiss legend's record of five Dubai titles could be matched in 12 months time. "I hope you enjoyed the show," he said to the crowd.

The response left him in doubt to what they thought.

akhaled@thenational.ae

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