Grand Slam winners, rising stars to face off at Dubai Tennis Championships

DUBAI: Top seed Novak Djokovic heads an impressive list of Grand Slam winners who will face off against some of the game’s rising stars at the 31st Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after Saturday’s draw threw up some intriguing clashes.

Besides the world No. 1 and recent Australian Open winner, the ATP 500 field includes four other players from the world top 10 who between them have collected 26 major titles.

Djokovic will start his quest for a sixth Dubai title against a qualifier or lucky loser, while defending champion and second seed Andrey Rublev will face Serbia’s Filip Krajinovic, ranked 67th in the world, in the round of 32.

“I feel good to be back in Dubai, it’s a great feeling and I would love to go as far as possible,” Rublev said.

“Last time I played Filip he destroyed me quite easily, I couldn’t do anything, so we will see. It will be a nice game and I hope I play better than last time.”

Fifth seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland will face 2017 Dubai winner Andy Murray in the opening round, with Djokovic a potential quarterfinal opponent. With all five qualifiers sitting on Djokovic’s half of the draw, third seed Daniil Medvedev, who could meet the Serb in the semifinals, will also face a qualifier in the round of 32.

“Over the years, this tournament has created terrific excitement in Dubai and grown to become one of the world’s best-regarded tournaments,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free.

“We have a very strong lineup this year and the draw has produced some fascinating matches that will excite our loyal fans. Every year, we strive to make the event more compelling and give tennis fans from both the UAE and overseas the maximum amount of fun. We look forward to an exciting week of tennis and wish all the players the best of luck.”

Elsewhere in the opening round, Germany’s Alexander Zverev, the world No. 16 and seventh seed in Dubai, will play world No. 52 Jiri Lehecka of the Czech Republic, while Canadian fourth seed and world No. 9 Felix Auger-Aliassime, who could face Zverev in the quarterfinals, opens his account against French-born American Maxime Cressy, the world No. 37.

In the same half of the draw, sixth seed Karen Khachanov, who could face Rublev in the quarters, starts his run against Botic Van de Zandschulp of the Netherlands.

British No. 1 Daniel Evans, who will play Croatian eighth seed and world No. 20 Borna Coric in the first round, believes the late February heat in Dubai will challenge the field.

“We get very hot conditions on tour, but we start a little later here. It’s always difficult when it’s hot and a lot of players may not be prepared to go when it’s this sort of temperature,” said the world No. 29, who lives in Dubai.

Speaking during the draw, Salah Tahlak, joint chief operating officer of Dubai Duty Free and tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, said: “The draw has opened the door to some thrilling confrontations between elite players and we cannot wait for the competitions to begin.”

Tahak also named the three players who had received wild cards into the main draw.

The first is Australia’s Thannasi Kokkinakis, who memorably partnered Nick Kyrgios to doubles glory at the 2022 Australian Open. Kokkinakis will face a qualifier in the round of 32.

The second is Tunisian veteran Malik Jaziri who will play Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina, who is set to retire after the Dubai tournament.

The third is Alexei Popyrin, a 23-year-old Australian who lives in Dubai. He will play a qualifier in his first appearance in the tournament and could face Murray or Hurkacz in the last 16.

Popyrin, a product of the CF Tennis Academy, said he knew the event well, having worked there as a ball boy.

“Being a ball kid here so many years ago is one of my fondest memories,” he said.

“Back then as a ball kid on center court, it was always my dream to play in Dubai. To get that opportunity is great privilege and honor, and I want to thank everyone who participated in handing me the wildcard.

“I always told myself that if I ever made it I would thank all the ball kids, but to be honest I don’t really do that — so thank you to all of them in advance,” laughed the world No. 84.