x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Only gains to be made in capital

Recognised on ATP World Tour or not, Tsonga and Soderling feel the competition helps set tone for the season.

Cynicism can at times be an occupational hazard for those who write about sport for a living.

In February, as the foreign press corps descended on the UAE for the Dubai Tennis Championships, one over-opinionated, overconfident writer was overheard scoffing at the annual exhibition tournament in Abu Dhabi.

His claim was simple: the event could not possibly be called a World Tennis Championship because it is not a recognised event on the ATP World Tour.

The said journalist should speak to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Or Robin Soderling. Or any of the four other top-ranked tennis players who will compete in the capital over the coming days.

"The global tennis season starts here," declare the posters surrounding the Zayed Sports City Tennis Complex.

Tsonga, who endured an injury-plagued 2010 and has not played since October's Open Sud de France in Montpellier, certainly agrees.

"For me, this is not an exhibition. For me, this is the first tournament of the season because I need to play competitive matches," the Frenchman said. "I don't have a lot of tournaments before the Australian Open, so I am treating this as an official one."

Soderling, the world No 5 who reached the final last year before falling to Rafael Nadal, concurs: "I think everybody feels the same. Of course, it is not a real ATP tournament, but - at least in last year's case - it was solid matches and everybody gave 100 per cent, so it feels the same as it does when we play any tournament."

Tsonga's injuries - be it the sprained wrist that saw him withdraw from Abu Dhabi last year or the ankle problem that led to him missing France's Davis Cup final with Serbia - resulted in his slipping out of the top 10 for the first time in two years.

Tomorrow, the world No 13 faces Soderling, the powerful Swede who has, in all three meetings with Tsonga, proved insurmountable.

"I did a lot of training to get my body in shape because I was lacking fitness," said Tsonga, 25. "I have played a bit, but I hope to play my best tennis from the start and keep the momentum going into the season. I have prepared for this tournament like it is the most important of the year and feel fitter than I have ever felt before."

However, if the Australian Open finalist is hoping to catch his Scandinavian rival out of shape, he may need to prepare for disappointment.

Soderling, having arrived here late on Monday evening, was yesterday in no mood for sleeping off his jet lag.

A double training session on a sun-drenched side court was followed by a visit to the complex's recently revamped gymnasium, where he agreed to an unorthodox interview while pedaling his way to further fitness. He is taking tomorrow's match as serious as he would any other.

"I have been practising very hard for two and a half weeks," he said. "Last season was really long and I didn't finish until the first week of December. Then I took 10 days vacation and started training again. But my body is feeling really good and mentally I feel fresh."

Last year, Soderling followed up his appearance in the Abu Dhabi final with consecutive first-round exits in Chennai and at the season's first major in Melbourne. But any questions regarding the risk of starting his season too early are batted away with more force than his two-handed backhand.

"This tournament is the perfect preparation for me," he said. "No player can ask for a better start to the season than playing the world's best so early in the year.

"I had a great start here last time and played really well, but I couldn't save my form for Melbourne, which was a shame. Hopefully, I have learned from the experience and this time I go to Brisbane instead of Chennai.

"Last year there was a lot of travelling for me, but I will play in Brisbane, anyway. This is on the way and for only a couple of days I get a few really good matches. So my decision has been worth it, for sure."

Soderling meets Tsonga on centre court at 5pm tomorrow. Open-minded cynics are welcome to attend too - if they can snare a ticket. Abu Dhabi's residents, regardless of their tournament's non-ATP status, are expected to turn out in high numbers.