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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Dominic Thiem backs Novak Djokovic to emulate Nadal and Federer by returning to the top after injury

Austrian could face the former world No 1 on Saturday in the final of the Mubadala World Tennis Championship in Abu Dhabi

Dominic Thiem at the media Mubadala World Tennis Championship media day at the Four Seasons, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Dominic Thiem at the media Mubadala World Tennis Championship media day at the Four Seasons, Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Austria’s world No 5 Dominic Thiem says he expects Novak Djokovic to quickly re-establish himself at the top of men’s tennis when he makes his eagerly anticipated return from injury.

Djokovic, 30, endured a frustrating 2017 season by his own incomparable standards as a struggle for form and a persistent elbow injury limited his time on court.

After winning just two titles and failing to go beyond the quarter-finals of a grand slam tournament, Djokovic called time on his season when he retired during his Wimbledon last-eight clash with Tomas Berdych in July to focus on rehabilitating his elbow.

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The Serbian’s struggles this year were in sharp contrast to the all-conquering player that dominated men’s tennis in 2015 and the first half of 2016, a spell that yielded five major titles, including the career Grand Slam.

It makes Djokovic’s return to action at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship on Friday all the more compelling as fans and his rivals gain a better understanding of his levels following nearly six months away from the court.

For Djokovic, he will hope his time on the sidelines will have a similar effect it had on Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, both of whom missed much of the second half of 2016 only to return this year and win two major titles each.

Thiem believes it will and is expecting Djokovic to be back better than ever.

“I think we can expect the same. He’s in the same league as Roger and Rafa – also one of the greatest players of all time,” Thiem, 24, said at the Mubadala World Tennis Championship media day at the Four Seasons Hotel, Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

“I think he will be even better and more dangerous if his injury is fine and he’s had some time to recharge. I think everyone wants to know how he is playing again, and we will see in his first match here.”

Thiem could face Djokovic in the final on Saturday if both players progress from their respective semi-finals.

As the tournament’s top two seeds, Thiem and Djokovic have received byes to the last-four, with the remaining four players battling it out in Thursday’s quarter-finals. Thiem will then face the winner of Pablo Carreno Busta’s match with Kevin Anderson, before Djokovic takes on either Roberto Bautista Agut or Andrey Rublev.

Thiem and Djokovic went head-to-head twice last season, with each claiming a lop-sided win. Firstly, Djokovic thrashed Thiem in the Rome Masters semi-finals, dropping just one game to the Austrian over two sets. Thiem got his revenge in the French Open quarter-finals, winning in straight sets including 6-0 in the third.

While not an official tour event, the Mubadala World Tennis Championship has become a popular choice for some of the best players in the world as they look to transition from the off-season to competitive tennis.

And with the first grand slam of the season, the Australian Open, less than three weeks away, Thiem and his fellow players in Abu Dhabi will be taking the tournament seriously.

“It’s been a pretty long time without any tournaments and matches so it’s nice to see where you are, to see where the other guys are,” Thiem said. “It’s not a tour event, but it’s still a serious tournament and it’s important for everybody here.”