Reem Abulleil looks back at a surprising week of tennis in Dubai.
Two weeks of world-class tennis have wrapped up in Dubai with Roberto Bautista Agut reigning supreme over Lucas Pouille in the men’s final on Saturday.
For a tournament that was missing its usual stars, it still managed to deliver quality and excitement.
From an Arab surprise run to a teenage breakthrough to the desert rain that played mind tricks on the players, there was no shortage of action at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Here are five things learned from the 26th edition of the ATP tournament.
IT’S NEVER TOO LATE
Making his sixth consecutive main draw appearance in Dubai, the 34-year-old Malek Jaziri stole home hearts by upsetting world No. 4 Grigor Dimitrov in his opening round to claim the first top-10 victory of his career, then marched to the semi-finals to become the first Arab to make it that far at the tournament since Younes El Aynaoui in 2002.
It was Jaziri’s first ATP 500 semi-final and it catapulted the Tunisian 33 spots up the rankings to get back to 84 in the world.
Jaziri is a late bloomer who hit his career-high ranking of 47 last year, aged 33. On a tour that has a 36-year-old Roger Federer winning Slams and getting to No. 1, and a 33-year-old Gilles Muller capturing a maiden ATP title last year, it really is never too late to hit new heights in the world of tennis. Jaziri, who was 0-10 against top-10 opposition prior to his win over Dimitrov, is yet another example of that.
THREE CHEERS FOR THE CROWD
Roger Federer didn’t come, only two from the top-10 showed up and one of them lost in the first round and it rained… but guess what? It didn’t matter in the end. The last few days of the tournament witnessed great crowds that even prompted the umpire in the final to commend them on their Mexican wave.
“Thank you ladies and gentlemen, that was amazing, players are ready!” is not something you hear every day from a match official.
Tunisian fans turned up in scores to support Jaziri but the stadium was also buzzing during the final between Bautista Agut and Pouille.
Dubai loves its tennis. And while there’s no debating the unmatchable popularity of Federer, this week showed us that even if the stars aren’t in town, there is genuine passion for the sport and the event.
MIXED VIEWS ON DAVIS CUP OVERHAUL
The ITF’s proposal to completely revamp the Davis Cup in partnership with a company headed by footballer Gerard Pique was of course a hot topic in the Dubai press centre this past week and it’s clear players are not united in their views on the matter.
Bautista Agut said he welcomes the idea of a big money investment in tennis while Pouille described the proposal as a “death sentence” to the Davis Cup. The two Dubai finalists aren’t the only people on opposite ends of this debate. It’ll be interesting to see how this all pans out when the plan is voted on at the ITF’s Annual General Meeting in August.
TSITSIPAS LOVES THE MIDDLE EAST
I’m not just guessing that because he made the quarter-finals in both Doha and Dubai this season. He actually told me so.
The 19-year-old Greek wildcard Stefanos Tsitsipas reached his first ATP 500 quarter-final in the Emirates, taking out Mikhail Kukushkin and Philipp Kohlschreiber before losing to Jaziri. He hits a new career-high ranking of 71 on Monday. Keep an eye out for this Next Gen star this season.
Pouille played one match in January, and he lost it. It was his fifth consecutive Australian Open first round defeat. He is 0-5 in Melbourne. He then got injured and didn’t play Davis Cup. Instead of wallowing, he decided to snap out of it.
The Frenchman gave himself a pep talk, acknowledged he was putting needless pressure on his shoulders and tried to get rid of it. The result was reaching three finals in four weeks and winning one of them. He was outplayed by Bautista Agut in the final but can still take lots of confidence from his past month.