Mubadala World Tennis Championship can offer same platform for Novak Djokovic this year as it did for Rafa Nadal in 2016
Serbian former world No 1 will take his first steps towards competitive tennis in Abu Dhabi this week.
Novak Djokovic will hope the Mubadala World Tennis Championship can be as good an indicator of form for the season ahead as it proved 12 months ago.
Last year, Rafael Nadal returned from a spell out with injury to win the tournament for a fourth time. He would go on to win two grand slam titles and reclaim the No 1 ranking.
Belgium's David Goffin shocked then-world No 1 Andy Murray in the semi-finals, before reaching the quarter-finals at the Australian Open the following month, matching his best performance at a major. He ended the year as the runner-up in at the ATP World Tour Finals and ranked No 7.
Murray's below-par showing, which came off the back of the best year of his career in 2016, was also a prelude to a disappointing 2017 in which he won only one title, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, and ended his season early with a hip injury.
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Nadal may have withdrawn ahead of this year's 10th staging of the event, which takes place at Zayed Sports City's International Tennis Stadium, but he will surely be watching from afar, as will much of the tennis world, to see the return of his great rival Djokjovic.
The 12-time major winner, who as top seed in Abu Dhabi has received a bye to the semi-finals, will compete on court for the first time in almost six months on Friday when he takes on either Roberto Bautista Agut or Andrey Rublev.
Which Djokovic shows up in the UAE is one of the most fascinating narratives of this year's event.
Will it be the player who was one of the sport's most dominant players over the past decade? Or will it be the the man who looked like he had lost his edge between June 2016 and July 2017 and had suddenly become very beatable?
Given Djokovic is one of the biggest threats to Nadal's No 1 status next year, the Spaniard and the rest of the leading players will be very intrigued by just how the Serbian performs.
Djokovic has won the title on three of his previous four visits to Abu Dhabi, the most recent in December 2013. In fact, the 30 year old has never lost a match at Zayed Sports City when he has stepped on court.
In eight matches he has competed in he has a 100 per cent record, dropping just two sets.
The only mark on his record is the 2015 final, when he had to forfeit due to illness and hand the title to Murray.
Friday will be Djokovic's first match since early July, when he retired hurt against Tomas Berdych in the Wimbledon quarter-finals with the elbow problem that would sideline him for the rest of the year.
Djokovic arrives in the UAE at No 12 in the world, the lowest he has been ranked since March 2007, due to his inactivity in the second half of the season.
The impact that the time away from court will have had on Djokovic will be interesting. Following his exit from Wimbledon he had gone five majors without winning one, his worst streak in seven years.
His form visibly dropped after winning his 12th major title at the 2016 French Open, which completed his career grand slam.
At his best Djokovic is near invincible. His power and consistency from the back of court enables him to produce winners from all angles, while his mental strength provides a resolve that has seen him claw his way back from seemingly impossible positions to win.
If that Djokovic can return, firstly this week, then at the Australian Open next month, the first major of 2018, then a record seventh title in Melbourne is a serious prospect.
With Nadal still recovering from the knee problem that forced him to pull out of the ATP World Tour Finals and recently the Mubadala event, Murray still labouring with a hip problem, and Roger Federer turning 37 this year, Djokovic can expect to be back challenging at the top of the game.
With the next generation led by Alexander Zverev, Dominic Thiem and Grigor Dimitrov yet to kick on, the stage is set for Djokovic to push back towards No 1.
Abu Dhabi will be the first hint of whether he is still capable of achieving that. After all, it worked for Nadal before him.
Updated: December 25, 2017 09:05 PM