The season is less than two months old and the players are already dropping like flies in the Arabian desert. Rafael Nadal is nursing a wounded knee, while Juan Martin del Potro and Andy Roddick are out of action with wrist and arm injuries respectively. Yesterday Roger Federer added his name to the sick list when he withdrew from this week's Barclays Dubai Championships here with a lung infection. The world No 1 could be out for up to six weeks, though he hopes that a fortnight's rest will enable him to return in Indian Wells early next month.
Of the world's top seven players only Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Nikolay Davydenko are fit for duty. To the relief of the organisers here, all three are in the field for an event that usually draws the best line-up anywhere outside of a Grand Slam or Masters Series tournament. Big prize-money and appearance fees help, as does the chance – for the top players at least – to stay in what bills itself as the world's most luxurious hotel. Murray and Djokovic are staying at the Burj Al Arab, the iconic Dubai hotel constructed in the shape of a sailing vessel.
Federer has his own place not far up the road and came to the hotel yesterday to explain why he will be missing the event for the second year in succession after suffering a back injury 12 months ago. Having lost to Murray in the first round in 2008 as he recovered from glandular fever, he has not won a match for three years at a tournament he won four times between 2003 and 2007.
The Swiss, who did not look or sound in the best of shape, arrived back here at his winter base 10 days ago and had been practising hard when he fell ill last week. He has been on antibiotics since an infection in his right lung was diagnosed.
"It's the first time I've had it," Federer said. "Breathing was difficult. Actually I feel I'm not fine yet. I'm still very tired and just a bit slow with everything. They say that it's important that you don't do any sport for at least two weeks or so and I obviously can't take any chances.
"They say it normally takes a maximum of six weeks to recover. Normally if you treat it properly it should go away fairly quickly. With glandular fever there's no end in sight sometimes, so it could be worse."
Murray has not played since his run to the Australian Open final three weeks, but he too admitted to feeling jaded. Asked what he had done since his defeat to Federer in Melbourne, Murray said: "Not a lot. I took 10 days off and didn't train, didn't go to the gym. I didn't really do anything. Body and mind were a bit sore and tired after five weeks over in Australia and I just relaxed.
"I started hitting a little bit after 10 days or so. I still felt a little bit jaded, a little bit tired. I just needed to try to stay fresh. Mentally I feel good. I haven't hit too much, but mentally I feel good." Speaking on a lawn in front of the hotel, Murray said that this was one of his favourite tournaments away from Grand Slam and Masters Series events. "They treat the players really well," he said. "You get to stay in a hotel like this, which doesn't happen every week."
Murray said his suite – including a master bedroom and guest bedroom plus a living room and dining room on a second level – was huge. He was particularly impressed by some of the gadgetry. "You have a little panel thing that you can turn the lights off in the room upstairs and you can control the TVs in all of the rooms," he said. "When someone rings the bell there's a little camera so you can see on your pad or on the TV who's at the door." He added: "I haven't eaten in the hotel that much. I had room service the first night. I actually had a burger and fries – very healthy. But the food in there is really good, as you would expect."
Federer's absence should increase Murray's chances of success. The Scot was seeded to meet the Swiss in the semi-finals, but now Marin Cilic, the world No 10, is, on ranking at least, the biggest threat in his half of the draw.
Murray starts today against Russia's Igor Kunitsyn (world No 90) and, if rankings and seedings go to plan, should meet Janko Tipsarevic (No 37) and Mikhail Youzhny (No 15) before facing Cilic in the semi-finals, the stage at which he beat the Croat in the Australian Open last month. Djokovic and Davydenko are seeded to meet in the semi-finals in the other half of the draw.
Murray, nevertheless, played down the effect of Federer's withdrawal on his own prospects. "If I get to the semis it might be a bit different, but I'm not thinking about winning the tournament," he said. "I haven't practised or trained that much since Australia. I don't know how well I'll shape up or how well I'm going to play."
Indeed, Murray said he regretted the absence of the world's best player. "I love playing against him," he said. "I said, from the first time I played him, that it's always great fun and a challenge for me. I would like to have had the chance to play against him here, but it's not to be."