x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Federer-Nadal rivalry to set tone for the year

The season kicks off and the Qatari capital, Doha, will yearn for a duel between the world's No 1 and 2.

Roger Federer says he has finally overcome niggling back complaints from the previous year.
Roger Federer says he has finally overcome niggling back complaints from the previous year.

Sixteen of the 20 previous meetings between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been in finals of important tournaments all over the world - a testimony to the way they have dominated their sport over the last few years. In the absence of Andy Murray, winner of the Qatar Exxon Mobil Open for the past two years, and world No 3 Novak Djokovic the organisers of this year's season-opener in Doha are yearning for another showdown on Saturday between the sport's two biggest attractions. A shoot-out between the Swiss and the Spaniard would provide the perfect early form guide to what promises to be a fascinating season which for the men is looking to be far more unpredictable than previous campaigns.

A triumph for Nadal to back up his encouraging success in the non-sanctioned Capitala exhibition in Abu Dhabi last weekend would add weight to the argument that the former world No 1 will not again be undermined this season by the chronic knee problems which forced him to surrender his cherished top ranking to Federer in the middle of last year. Nadal has a clear edge of 13-7 in his personal duels with Federer and won five times in a row - three of them in grand slam finals - before losing their last encounter in Madrid last spring. After overcoming his principal adversary to become Australian Open champion for the first time last January he looked set to rule to roost for the foreseeable future.

However, the punishment that his aggressive, hard-hitting style inflicts on his powerful frame gradually wore him down to the point where his overwhelming supremacy on European clay was brought to an end at Roland Garros and led to his failure to defend a Wimbledon title which was gratefully regained by a buoyant Federer. There are more fitness question marks against Nadal in the first competitive event of the New Year than there are against Federer, who declared after leaving Abu Dhabi that he has finally overcome the niggling back complaints of the previous 12 months and feels as fit as he has ever done.

The second-seeded Nadal, who also suffered from back problems in the second half of the season looks to have a more straightforward route to the title, though, than Federer. What should be a routine first-round match against Simone Bolelli, an Italian ranked 93rd in the world and still to win his first ATP tour title, will be followed by a meeting tomorrow with either another moderate Italian Potito Starace or Portugal's Federico Gil.

Nadal's first serious test is likely to come in Friday's semi-final if and when he meets Serbia's Viktor Troicki, the fifth seed who looked impressive in winning yesterday's opening Centre Court encounter against Spain's Daniel Gimeno-Traver. Federer, assuming he deals efficiently with his first three opponents, has the tougher semi-final in prospect against the tenacious Russian Nikolay Davydenko who is hoping to endorse his unexpected triumph in the end-of-season Tour finals in London with a first grand slam title this season.

Davydenko is seeded three here and may have to deal with the big-serving Croatian Ivo Karlovic in the last eight before he can concentrate on trying to spoil Federer's build-up to what he hopes will be a fourth Australian Open crown. Federer, brimming with confidence despite his surprise Abu Dhabi defeat by Robin Soderling, opens his challenge for a third Doha title today against Belgium's Christophe Rochus. The Swiss's scheduled quarter-final opponent is Spaniard Albert Montanes.