DUBAI, February 24 – Novak Djokovic’s first tournament since his successful defence of the Australian Open title offers him a chance to show why he could remain the world number one for the foreseeable future.
The 25-year-old Serbian’s triumph in Melbourne saw him avenge a defeat in the US Open final to his most contemporary rival, Andy Murray, making him an even stronger favourite to win back the title at the Dubai Open, which starts on Monday.
To do that Djokovic will probably need to overcome the man who took it away from him — Roger Federer, the world number two, who has a home in Dubai, often plays outstandingly well here, and has won the title five times.
Even if Federer were to triumph for a sixth time, it is hard to see him making up his 3,000-point gap with Djokovic because he has settled on a more limited schedule to preserve himself in his 32nd year.
Neither Murray, nor Rafael Nadal, whose future remains uncertain, are competing in Dubai this year, which means a continuation of the Djokovic-Federer rivalry, which shows a 16-13 head-to-head in favour of the older man, is the most likely scenario.
“I’ve had an incredible run here over the years but I have got to be really focused and confident about my own form and hope to start well,” Federer said, referring obliquely to his Dubai debacle five years ago.
Then, as defending champion, he was landed with a first round against Murray, and fell at the first hurdle.
This time he has a more fortunate-looking opener — against Malek Jaziri, a wild card player from Tunisia.
It may quickly get tougher though, for Federer has a possible quarter-final with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, his conqueror at Wimbledon in 2011, and a possible semi-final with Tomas Berdych, who beat him at Wimbledon in 2010 and at the US Open last year.
Djokovic has appeared very relaxed in Dubai, swimming with turtles while not training, but he could have a dangerous semi-final with Juan Martin Del Potro, the former US Open champion from Argentina.
Del Potro though does not arrive until the early hours of Sunday, having flown from the Marseille Open, and will have a far-from-easy start against Marcos Baghdatis, the former Australian Open finalist.
Other last moment arrivals from Marseille will be Tsonga, who must meet his compatriot Michael Llodra in the first round, and Berdych, who may meet the winner of that match in the last eight.