by Pete Bodo
Tennis does a great job of distracting us on a week-to-week basis, churning out story upon story—Roger Federer in full flight in Rotterdam! Mardy Fish loses to the ATP No. 338 in Marseille! Michael Chang advises Jeremy Lin!—to keep our minds working, while the scent on the trail of the important questions of the day grows cold.
Then, along comes an event like the current ATP 500 shootout in Dubai and something clicks. Oh yeah, what about Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal? Why does it seem like so long since the Australian Open, and what on earth have those two scalawags been up to all these weeks, after keeping us riveted to the tube for six hours that Sunday in Melbourne? It seems so long ago and faraway.
Unfortunately, these days Nadal is a bit like that wildly popular character for pre-schoolers, Waldo. He could be playing beach soccer near his home on Mallorca. He could be deep-sea fishing, or maneuvering the joystick on his PlayStation.
More than likely, though, he's out on a practice court, firing backhand or service bullets at a chest-pounding Djokovic impersonator while Nadal's coach and uncle Toni patiently looks on. Nadal hasn't shown up for work since he lost that Australian Open final and left muttering about having to do some more work on his game. The rumor that the natural-born right-hander is going to switch to playing with his dominant hand and return to the tour a born-again serve-and-volley enthusiast cannot be substantiated at this time.
It's a pity that Waldo is absent from the Dubai field, because it ensures that we won't get to see what some might describe as "the only match that matters." Given the distance No. 1 Djokovic and No. 2 Nadal have put between themselves and the rest of the field, that's a tenable if not particularly charitable or nunaced point of view. And it takes away more than it rightfully should from the most basic question in tennis today, which is: Can anyone stop Djokovic?
In Dubai, seven of the other Top 10 ATP studs will all get their shot at derailing Djokovic, because the only other member of that elite company to skip Dubai is No. 5 David Ferrer (he just won the title on clay in Buenos Aires and knows that discretion is the better part of valor). So how much of a shot do any of those other seeded contenders have? Let's take them one at a time:
No. 2 seed Roger Federer: You could argue that Federer has a better shot at beating Djokovic than does Nadal, based on recent history. For starters, Federer is 4-4 in his last eight matches with Djokovic (Nadal, by contrast, is 1-7), and last September Federer was twice within one swing of ruining Djokovic's enchanted 2011 in the U.S. Open semifinals, their most recent meeting. That Nadal has been instrumental in keeping Djokovic safe from Federer is not only a cruel irony, it's also a validation of the theory that in tennis, it's all about the match-ups.
Federer has some other powerful factors working for him in the desert kingdom, starting with the fact that he calls Dubai his second home and primary training base. He's also in a match-playing groove, having recently played Davis Cup for Switzerland. That didn't work out so good, as they say, but he wiped the bad taste out of his mouth last week with a title win in Rotterdam (d. Juan Martin del Potro). Djokovic, by contrast, hasn't played a competitive match since he left Australia.
Federer has been playing commanding tennis since last October, and he'll be on a hard court that he likes. His record at sub-Grand Slam events has been stellar, and with Nadal out of the picture he's in a great position to earn back a little of his lost luster with an upset of the top seed.
No. 3 Andy Murray: He's coming off as long a hiatus as Djokovic, but Murray has great incentive in Dubai. He played an excellent semi against Djokovic in Melbourne, despite that costly lapse that led him to give up the fourth set without much of a fight. Dubai, of course, is a best-of-three format, and that's bound to help Murray—provided he gets his game in gear quickly.
No. 4 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: It increasingly looks like that nickname, "Ali," was hung on Jo-Willy by someone with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. For Tsonga is making a habit of disappointing his fans at the majors. But Dubai is not exactly a "Rumble in the Jungle"-type of affair, so it would be foolish to discount his chances.
Tsonga has done a good job locking down a Top 5 ranking, that insoluble Grand Slam puzzle nonwithstanding. He's been to a final and a semi in his other two tournaments this year (he started 2012 with a final-round win in Doha, and he lost in the semis to ultimate champ del Potro in Marseille). That win in Doha was under conditions likely to be very similar to what Tsonga will find in Dubai.
No. 5 Tomas Berdych: You never know with this dangerous ball-banger from the Czech Republic. He's finally started to show the the consistency that was absent for so long in his career, but he keeps falling one or two wins short of that seismic victory.
Still—his loss to finalist Nadal in the quarters of the Australian Open was nothing to be ashamed of, and he bounced back with a title run in Montpellier (d. Gael Monfils in final) and a semi in Rotterdam (l. to del Potro). Would it really shock you if Berdych won on the hard courts of Dubai?
On the other hand, he's got Murray and Djokovic in his (upper) half, and Federer down below, and three wins of that magnitude probably are too much to ask.
No. 6 Mardy Fish: He lost to No. 338 Albano Olivetti of France last week in Marseille. Nobody has suggested that Olivetti is the next Roger Federer, or even the next Arnaud Clement, so Fish is likely to have his hands full just trying to put up a few good wins after that debacle. He likes the surface in Dubai, though, and if he starts blasting that serve and keeps his forehand under control, he could do well.
No. 7 Janko Tipsarevic: Janko is Djokovic's wing man. They are penciled in to meet in the quarterfinals. Tipsarevic will probably hold the door for Djokovic as he traipses into the semis.
No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro: Some fans are getting a little bit nervous about Delpo's state of progress. Sure, 2011 was a comeback year (Delpo missed almost all of 2011 because of a wrist injury and surgery), but the reality is that the 10th-ranked Argentinian has yet to play as if he belongs among the Top 5; right now, he's cheek-and-jowl the men who make up the second five.
Del Potro beat Michael Llodra for the title in Marseille last week, but that won't get it done. It's more relevant that he has lost five straight sets to Federer (Australian Open quarters, Rotterdam final), which raises the question: Will Federer never tire of punishing Delpo for dethroning him in that 2009 U.S. Open final? Del Potro got as many as four games in just two of those recent sets, and could meet Federer again in the semis.
One last thing to keep in mind is that even though Rafa is MIA, this field is not just loaded, it's stacked with seriously capable hard-court players. It may take a lot to quash the theory that Djokovic is about to repeat that remarkable early-season run he put together last year, but there's a lot of firepower on hand to make that happen.