Absence of Rafael Nadal opens up opportunities for rest of the field at Mubadala World Tennis Championship
Action promises to be unpredictable at Zayed Sports City with four debutants now confirmed in the draw alongside three-time past winner Novak Djokovic and US Open runner-up Kevin Anderson.
For UAE tennis fans, it is obviously disappointing that Rafael Nadal will not be part of the 2017 Mubadala World Tennis Championship.
The world No 1 announced in a statement on Saturday morning that he would not be part of the 10th staging of the competition, which takes place at Zayed Sports City Tennis Stadium between December 28-30, with organisers replacing him with fellow Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut.
Nadal, 31, attributed his absence to needing more time than expected to recover from the exertions of a 2017, a season in which he won the French Open and the US Open while returning to the top of the rankings for the first time since June 2014.
“It was a tough 2017 and I need to take my calendar in a different way in order to be ready," he said in the statement. "For this reason, I have sadly announced to the organisers and now to you fans that I won’t play this time in Abu Dhabi."
Nadal's previous commitment to the tournament - he has played in eight of the nine previous events - means he would not have made this decision lightly.
His absence now throws open the draw and adds an air of unpredictability to proceedings that might not have been there before Saturday's news.
Only Nadal, a four-time winner of event including the past two years, Novak Djokovic (three wins) and Andy Murray (two-time champion) have won the tournament in the past.
While Djokovic, the 12-time grand slam winner, will now be the favourite to equal Nadal's record of four wins, the field is far more open.
Djokovic will be making his first appearance on a tennis court since he withdrew hurt against Tomas Berdych during his Wimbledon quarter-final in July.
After Djokovic spent a prolonged spell on the sidelines to deal with an elbow injury, the tennis world will be watching to see what kind of form the 30-year-old Serbian is in when he steps on court in the UAE for Friday's semi-finals.
Djokovic's record in Abu Dhabi though should serve as a warning to his rivals. He won on his first three visits, and his only defeat came off-court when he retired before a ball was hit against Murray in the 2015 final due to illness.
With four tournament debutants in the shape of Dominic Thiem (world No 5), Pablo Carreno Busta (No 10) and Bautista Agut (No 20) in the mix, this year's tournament is going to be an enjoyable step into the unknown for UAE-based tennis fans.
Throw in world No 14 Kevin Anderson, who reached the US Open final in September where he lost to Nadal, and you have a quartet of players who all have the experience to be the fourth champion in Abu Dhabi.
That's not forgetting hot prospect Andrey Rublev, who will be coming to the UAE on the back of a breakout year on the ATP Tour in 2017.
The 20-year-old Russian reached the quarter-finals of the US Open, beating Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin, a finalist 12 months ago in Abu Dhabi, on his run to the last eight in New York.
Ranked No 39, Rublev claimed his first ATP Tour title at the Croatian Open and reached the final of the Next Gen ATP Finals in November.
Rublev is part of the exciting new generation of players coming through in the game and he showed in his run at the US Open that he is not afraid of mixing it with top 10 players.
If he can shine in New York, there is no reason why he cannot be contender in Abu Dhabi, and the rest of the field will be wary of him.
With no way of knowing what level Djokovic will be at next week, this has all the signs of being the most unpredictable staging of the tournament yet, which has the potential to make it the most fun, and also interesting, one to date.
Updated: December 23, 2017 02:18 PM