Rafael Nadal, Serena and Venus Williams set for first appearances since US Open - Abu Dhabi preview

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The end of December is a festive season for everyone around the globe but for tennis players, it’s the time of the year where they wrap up their preseason training blocks, pack their bags and get ready to get back to work.

For Abu Dhabi, this period sees the emirate welcome some of the world’s best players to the courts of Zayed Sports City for the annual Mubadala World Tennis Championship.

A marquee lineup features in this weekend’s 11th edition of the tournament, which will witness the return of superstars like Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams, and the debut of others like Venus Williams and Karen Khachanov.

Here are some of the main storylines surrounding the players that will light up the UAE capital from December 27-29, as they prepare for the 2019 tennis season.

SERENA’S FIRST APPEARANCE SINCE US OPEN

The 37-year-old Serena will continue her search for an all-time record-equalling 24th Grand Slam title in 2019 and will once again grace the stadium at the International Tennis Centre at Zayed Sports City to put the finishing touches to her game ahead of the New Year.

A mother to 16-month old daughter Olympia, Serena returned to the tennis tour from maternity leave last March at Indian Wells and has since risen to 16 in the world rankings. She contested just seven events in 2018, reaching two Grand Slam finals in the process, at Wimbledon and the US Open.

The American’s US Open ended in controversy as she had a standoff with chair umpire Carlos Ramos, who gave her a game penalty during her final defeat to Naomi Osaka. Serena accused Ramos of sexism and has not played a tournament since.

Abu Dhabi will be Serena’s first on-court appearance since New York and she’ll be taking on her sister Venus on Thursday (20:00 local time).

Can Serena tie Margaret Court’s record in 2019? How much will she play throughout the season? Does she regret any of her actions during that infamous final? Those are just some of the burning questions surrounding her return to action.

NADAL’S HEALTH

The world No. 2, who lifted the trophy in Abu Dhabi on four previous occasions, shut down his 2018 season early due to injury concerns. Nadal retired from matches at two of the four Grand Slams in 2018, suffering from a psoas injury at the Australian Open, and knee problems at the US Open. He also underwent an arthroscopic procedure on his ankle to remove an intra-articular loose body in November.

The Spaniard is set to make his first appearance since his US Open semi-final retirement against Juan Marti del Potro in the UAE capital this weekend, opening his campaign against either Kevin Anderson or Chung Hyeon on Friday.

Once again, one of the biggest challenges facing Nadal in 2019 will be his fitness. His issues this year didn’t stop him from winning a 17th major last June though, where he picked up a record-extending 11th French Open crown.

DJOKOVIC’S MOMENTUM

The second half of the 2018 season saw Novak Djokovic recapture his form and add two more majors to his tally, which has now hit 14. After undergoing elbow surgery in February and dropping to as low as 22 in May, the Serb got back to the top of the rankings and lost just three matches since June. He’ll be looking to carry his momentum into 2019 and could become the most successful man in Australian Open history if he manages to win a seventh Melbourne title next month.

Djokovic faces either Khachanov or Dominic Thiem in his Abu Dhabi opener on Friday.


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Marhaba #AbuDhabi! I am so grateful and blessed that I have my whole family on court with me 🙏❤️

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VENUS SANS WITT

Following a successful 2017, which she ended as the WTA’s prize money leader, thanks to her two runner-up showings at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Venus had a rough 2018 and slipped to No. 38 in the rankings. She ended her 11-year collaboration with her coach David Witt during the offseason and has yet to announce his replacement. The 38-year-old hasn’t played since a lopsided US Open third round defeat to her sister Serena on August 31.

THIEM’S DREAM

World No. 8 Dominic Thiem will be hoping he can go one step further in 2019 and secure a first major after losing the Roland Garros final to Nadal last June. The Austrian, who takes on Khachanov in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, is in search of a traveling coach after parting ways with Galo Blanco (who took up a new position with Kosmos Tennis) to help him alongside his main coach Gunter Bresnik.

“Gunter will always be the main person and if I’m looking for a second coach who is giving me company at some tournaments, I’ve tried it, he was a player, that’s pretty important, and maybe had a similar game to me and he can improve me in some parts. But it can be basically anybody, I’m not that difficult,” Thiem told reporters in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

NEW TERRITORY FOR KHACHANOV

A stunning run to the Paris Masters title at the end of the 2018 season helped Khachanov reach a career-high ranking of No. 11. The 22-year-old Russian defeated four top-10 opponents, including Djokovic, en route to his first Masters 1000 trophy and takes lots of self belief from his triumph over the Serb.

“Of course I can take something from that, that brought me to No. 11 in the world. But this is a new season, you have to start from zero like everybody and you have to again prove that you are good and you have to get these results. Of course I’m feeling confident right now but everything starts from zero,” said Khachanov on Wednesday.

On Thursday, Khachanov faces Thiem, who was not surprised by his rival’s run in Paris.

“For me it was only a question of time until he really made his breakthrough because he has no weaknesses actually, he is a big tall player with very fast and powerful strokes. I think he was achieving a little bit too little all year and then he finished as No. 11, which is amazing, he won the Masters 1000, that’s where he belongs I think, and I’m almost 100 per cent sure that during 2019 we’ll see him in the top-10,” Thiem said of Khachanov.

CHUNG’S AUSSIE CHALLENGE

South Korea’s Chung Hyeon made waves last January when he reached the Australian Open semis, taking out Djokovic along the way. He followed that up with back-to-back quarter-finals appearances in Acapulco, Indian Wells and Miami but injuries interrupted his momentum and he had to miss two and a half months of action, which meant he skipped the French Open and Wimbledon. The 22-year-old says staying healthy is his main priority for 2019. He will face a tough test in Melbourne next month as he attempts to defend his semi-final points there.

ANDERSON’S TITLE DEFENCE

Anderson started his last season by winning the MWTC title in Abu Dhabi which set the tone for his most successful year to date. The South African hit a career-high ranking of No. 5 in July, after reaching the final at Wimbledon, where he came back from two sets down to defeat Federer en route. He also won the New York Open and the Erste Bank Open in Vienna in 2018 and qualified for his first ATP Finals. He had a shorter than usual offseason as a result but says he’s feeling ready for his title defence in the capital.

“The biggest thing was to recover and get the body healthy and everything feels really good. There’s always a few things you’re working on, on the court, movement, returns and some stuff at the net but all in all things are feeling really good and I’m really excited to get on the court this week,” he said of what he worked on the most during his preseason training block.

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