Sport360's Reem Abulleil explains why the Mubadala World Tennis Championship this year is must-see television.
The line-up may not be as blockbuster as it’s been in previous years, but it’s fair to say that all eyes will be on the Mubadala World Tennis Championship (MWTC) this weekend in Abu Dhabi as Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic make their long-awaited returns to the court.
For the first time in the tournament’s 10-year history, a women’s match will take place at the MWTC, and who else to mark that special occasion than one of the greatest tennis players of all-time – the one and only Serena.
She takes on reigning French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko in an exhibition clash on Saturday December 30.
New mum Serena, who delivered her first child Alexis Olympia in September, has not played since winning a record 23rd Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last January.
While some people can discard her Abu Dhabi appearance as a mere exhibition, there’s definitely reason for the world to be paying close attention to Serena’s match on Saturday.
Although she has hinted in the past that her intention is to try and defend her Australian Open crown next month, Serena has made no official statements regarding her tour return date and there is very little information out there as to how much she’s been practicing since the birth of her child.
Barring two images posted on her Instagram – one of a tennis court and the other of her pair of tennis shoes on what appears to be a tennis court – Serena has not shared any photos or videos of her actually hitting or practicing.
Seeing Serena hit a tennis ball here in Abu Dhabi this weekend is going to be a big deal no matter what.
While the MWTC is indeed an exhibition event, players have rarely treated it that way. The level of play tends to be highly competitive simply because top stars use it as a means to gage their form ahead of the new season.
Serena is facing the world No. 7 in the UAE capital. She will definitely be prepared to put together a solid performance against the fiery Ostapenko, and it will hardly be a hit-and-giggle situation.
You also don’t expect the 36-year-old to make the trip from the US to Abu Dhabi only to return state-side after that. She probably plans on flying to Australia after that, which is an encouraging sign she could be on court in Melbourne next month.
While the world will no doubt be following whatever unfolds at Zayed Sports City, Serena’s presence is a huge positive for local fans here in the UAE. The MWTC is one of the fan-friendliest tennis events in the world, and to think you can actually access the practice courts, free of charge, and accidentally stumble upon a Serena Williams warm-up or training session is unmatchable elsewhere.
Finally adding a female component to the event is also brilliant news for Abu Dhabi.
Think of all the young girls who can get inspired by someone like Serena and Ostapenko, playing in their own backyard. While the UAE is no stranger to women’s tennis, with Dubai hosting a WTA event since 2001, having a female presence at the MWTC is long overdue. Hopefully the idea is here to stay.
Meanwhile, Djokovic is set to make his first appearance since Wimbledon and how he fares against the likes of Dominic Thiem or Roberto Bautista Agut can be quite telling ahead of his official season start in Doha next week.
We’ve seen how, this time last year, Rafael Nadal returned from an injury break by playing and winning Abu Dhabi, then going on to enjoy a phenomenal season that saw him get back to the top of the rankings. David Goffin displayed subliminal form in the UAE capital 12 months ago then went on to finish 2017 ranked No. 7 in the world and defeating Roger Federer and Nadal en route to the runner-up spot at the ATP Finals.
Getting the better of some of the top players in the world ahead of the new season could be just what the doctor ordered for Djokovic, and a welcome confidence boost.
Even if Serena and Djokovic are not ready to showcase some strong form, Abu Dhabi will no doubt reveal insight into where they’re heading.
The 10th edition of the MWTC is suddenly must-see TV. Be sure to tune in!