After Daniil Medvedev’s win at the Diriyah Cup last week, the tennis world’s preseason will get underway in earnest at the Mubadala World Tennis Championships in Abu Dhabi. Headlining the action are the world’s best, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who will begin their tournaments in the semifinals. But two intriguing quarterfinals are on the slate to decide who will meet them in the last four. Who will come out on top?
Stefanos Tsitsipas vs Andrey Rublev
Head-to-head: Rublev 2-1 Tsitsipas
It was a late finish to the season for Stefanos Tsitsipas, who beat Dominic Thiem to win the biggest title of his career at the ATP Finals. The Greek had never won a title above ATP 250 level before, but it was nonetheless a fitting end to what was a superb season for the young gun, who also reached the semifinals at Melbourne Park and the final at the Madrid Open. However, a number of players have struggled to back up breakthrough results in recent seasons and Tsitsipas’ 2020 campaign will thus be followed with interest by many.
Andrey Rublev, meanwhile, wrapped up his 2019 season later still, travelling to Madrid with the Russian team for the inaugural Davis Cup Finals, where he played some superb tennis. The hard-hitting 22-year-old picked up wins over Borna Gojo, Roberto Bautista Agut and Vasek Pospisil during Russia’s run to the semifinals. He also played some fine tennis on the regular tour, bouncing back from the injuries that derailed his 2018 to pick up some fine wins, most notably over Roger Federer.
He also won his most recent meeting with Tsitsipas, beating the Greek in the first round at the US Open. That will surely give him real confidence heading into this match, although it is worth noting that Tsitsipas arrived in New York in the midst of a dire stretch and struggled badly with cramps. If Tsitsipas can recapture the form that took him to the title in London, he will likely prove too strong for Rublev. But that may well be a tough ask in the heat of Abu Dhabi in the midst of his preseason.
Rublev has consistently shown that he thrives when on the biggest stage taking on the best players in the world, and so will surely not want for motivation when he steps on to court against Tsitsipas. If he can impose himself early, with his forehand likely to be the crucial shot, he may just be able to punish a Tsitsipas possibly still short of focus after his outstanding successes at the back-end of the 2019 season.
Prediction: Rublev in 3
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Karen Khachanov vs Hyeon Chung
Head-to-head: first meeting
Like his compatriot Rublev, Karen Khachanov ended his year at the Davis Cup Finals. He did win just one of his four singles matches, beating Croatia’s Borna Coric, but there can be no shame in having lost to Denis Shapovalov, a finalist at the Paris Masters in November, and two all-time greats in Djokovic and Nadal. He arrives in Abu Dhabi knowing that victory over South Korea’s Hyeon Chung will give him another crack at the Spanish world #1.
But Chung will have plenty of motivation to score what would be a statement win. After his scintillating run to the Australian Open semifinals in 2018, highlighted by a fourth-round win over an admittedly lessened Djokovic, the Korean has had to battle against more than his fair share of injury problems, with back and leg issues keeping him off-court for much of the last 18 months, including a long spell between February and July.
Since his return, he has played sparingly and mostly at Challenger-level, looking to rebuild his fitness and confidence. But having been out of action since losing to Rublev in the second round in Vienna, he should be fit and firing at the Mubadala World Tennis Championships. His elastic defence and vaunted return, which has earned him comparisons with Djokovic, will certainly ask real questions of the powerfully equipped Khachanov.
However, his serve has proven itself something of a handicap throughout his career and it is a weakness that Khachanov will surely look to target from the off in this match. It certainly won’t reward Chung with many free points. The same cannot be said of Khachanov’s hammer of a serve and ultimately it is hard to look past the fact that the Russian presents his opponent with a serious step up in class, one that looks almost certain to have come too soon for Chung.
Prediction: Khachanov in 3
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