x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Dubai Tennis Championships: All about pacing the season for Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer

The world's No1 and 2 players are choosing what tournaments to play in so they can stay fresh all year, writes Gary Meenaghan.

Winning grand slams remains a priority for Roger Federer, left, and Novak Djokovic. Jaime Puebla / The National
Winning grand slams remains a priority for Roger Federer, left, and Novak Djokovic. Jaime Puebla / The National

Ahead of the five-day sprint to the final of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are feeling fit and fresh and ready for the fight.

Both men, however, are quick to concede that what lies ahead of them this season is more of a marathon that requires a mixture of clever scheduling, intense training and psychological resilience.

Naturally, the US$2 million (Dh7.4m) Dubai tournament is an important leg of this year-long endurance race and while the ATP yesterday claimed that being No 1 is what players live for, there is no denying the grand slams that pepper the calendar are what matter most.

Djokovic, who sits at the summit of his sport's standings, was unequivocal in his words.

"Priority number one is Roland Garros because it's the only grand slam that I haven't won in my career," he said, referring to the French Open, which starts on May 26.

"The mindset still is very simple though; take it one tournament at a time."

The charismatic Serbian won a third successive Australian Open title last month and has now not lost a match since the ATP World Tour Masters in Paris last October.

At 25 years old, he is at his physical peak and showed immense mental strength to fight back from a set down in Melbourne's grand slam final against Andy Murray. It is little wonder he said he could not have asked for a better start to the year.

Federer, in contrast, is continuing to defy logic by maintaining his mastery and positioning himself second in the world rankings, even at the age of 31.

The Swiss won six titles last year, including one grand slam, and has never lost his self-belief. He proved adamant - and even slightly irked - when asked if he felt he has one more slam in him to add to his 17 major titles.

"I strongly believe I have more," he said. "It depends how long I play, how injury-free I stay and what new generation comes up; how solid the rest of the guys are going to be.

"But I don't want to be dependent on what the other guys do. I want to put myself in the position where my game is good enough to be there."

The reigning Wimbledon champion said the secret to his longevity against the likes of Djokovic or Murray will be his schedule. After next month's Masters Series at Indian Wells, he is not planning to compete again until the Madrid Open, starting on May 3.

This will, he said, allow him two weeks to relax before training for between four and six weeks on clay courts.

"That's why I'm making sure I practise enough, that's why I'm trying to be smart with my scheduling because I'm in a totally different situation than they are - they are right in their prime between 23 and 28," said Federer, who meets Malek Jaziri, the Tunisian wild card, this evening.

"For me, it's very challenging and why I need to make the right decisions with personal life and my family; none of the guys have that, so I have many more things to worry about than they do."

Djokovic has been joined in the finals of the past two grand slams by Murray.

However, he refuses to call the Scot his fiercest rival as it would downplay the threat of Federer and Rafael Nadal, the Spanish matador with the enviable biceps and eggshell knees who continues to dominate conversations in and around the Aviation Club.

Both Djokovic and Federer have keenly watched highlights of Nadal's return from a seven-month absence as he first reached the final of the VTR Open in Chile and then won the Brazil Open a week later.

"It is great for tennis that he's back," Djokovic said. Yet the success of Nadal's return will inevitably be determined only by his display at the French Open, which he has won a record seven times.

"Rafa is definitely the ultimate challenge and the toughest one to beat - he is the king of clay," said Djokovic, who added: "It's a mental battle as much as it is physical, especially if you are playing one of your big rivals in the final of a grand slam."

It is a battle that Djokovic is winning, though, and with every win his self-belief grows more.

"Physically, I am working very hard, day in and day out, and in the latter stages of a grand slam, when you are taking it to four or five sets, that's when it all comes back to you and it really pays off," he said.

Last night, as the sun set over the centre court at the Aviation Club, a bare-chested male was knocking balls back and forth. Not surprisingly, it was the world No 1. His marathon starts again tomorrow when he faces compatriot Viktor Troicki.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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