WASHINGTON, February 15, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
Imagine, you’re Sofia Kenin, the newly crowned Australian Open singles champion and you’ve just arrived in Dubai, U.A.E, less than a week after helping your country secure a berth in the upcoming Fed Cup by BNP Paribas Finals – and you’re not even the biggest story for the upcoming 20th edition of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships this week.
Step aside, Sofia, and welcome the return of former World No. 1 and International Tennis Hall of Fame member Kim Clijsters, who at age 36 is making the second comeback of her decorated career. Before she retired the first time after the 2012 US Open to raise a family, the Belgian had won 41 career singles titles and 11 career doubles titles, reached No. 1 in the WTA rankings and won four Grand Slam singles crowns.
Clijsters, who has never competed in Dubai, received a wild card and will be joined by No. 7 Kenin and five other Top 10 players in this stellar WTA Premier outdoor hard court event. The top seed is World No. 2 Simona Halep, who won the event in 2015. The talent-rich field also includes No. 3 Karolina Pliskova, No. 4 Elina Svitolina, No. 5 Belinda Bencic, who is the defending champion; and No. 8 Kiki Bertens. This year’s Australian Open finalist Garbiñe Muguruza, ranked 16th, has also received a wild card into the main draw along with Arab No. 1 Ons Jabeur, who is ranked a career-best 45th. Add to the mix No. 13 Aryna Sabalenka plus up-and-coming teens No. 26 Dayana Yastremska and No. 29 Amanda Anisimova and there’s plenty of pre-tournament buzz and excitement. Earlier this month, World No. 1 Ashleigh Barty was forced to withdraw due to an injury to her right foot and reigning US Open champion and World No. 6 Bianca Andreescu is still out with an ongoing knee injury.
While this world-class main draw in Dubai is the dream of any tournament director, the tennis cognoscenti will be focused on Clijsters for at least as long as she remains in the mix. She tweeted her return earlier this month on Feb. 9, saying: “Since announcing my return, there have been a few bumps but looking forward to returning to the match court and what this next chapter brings. … Thanks to all my fans for their encouragement these past weeks. See you in Dubai!”
Find out who will compete against each other 👇
— Dubai Tennis Champs (@DDFTennis) February 15, 2020
When the Dubai draw was revealed Saturday afternoon, Clijsters was drawn to face the sixth seed Bertens, a finalist this week at St. Petersburg. If she wins, Clijsters could face Yastremska in the second round with the possibility of a matchup against either Svitolina or Muguruza in the third round.
After losing her first four Grand Slam finals between 2001-04, Clijsters won the US Open in 2005. Then, after returning to the WTA Tour in 2009, she won three more majors – US Open (in 2009 and 2010) and the Australian Open (2011). Last September, Clijsters surprised the tennis world by announcing her return after a seven-year hiatus. She had hoped to debut at last month’s Australian Open, but a knee injury forced her to postpone her return to this week.
Clijsters has expressed her excitement to be getting back to the match court. She recently told the WTA Tour website: “I know it’s a special anniversary for the Dubai Duty Free Championships. So, it’s a honor to be making my return to the game and debut in Dubai at the same time. I can’t wait to return to the game I love and play in front of the fans again. The support and encouragement that I’ve received since the announcement has been overwhelming.”
• Top seed Simona Halep and second seed Karolina Pliskova are the only two players in the 30-player main draw who received first-round byes. Halep will play either No. 18 Alison Riske or wild card Ons Jabeur, while Pliskova will face a qualifier in her first match.
• Among many interesting first-round matches, third seed Elina Svitolina faces No. 16 Garbiñe Muguruza. Both received wild cards to compete in Dubai and it will be a rematch of their Australian Open third-round tussle, won by Muguruza. Also, fifth seed Sofia Kenin faces St. Petersburg finalist Elena Rybakina, ranked 25th, and seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka takes on No. 21 Maria Sakkari, whom Rybakina beat Saturday in the St. Petersburg semifinals.
What they’re saying
• Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, as quoted on the tournament’s website: “The draw for our 20th anniversary of the WTA event has produced the prospect of many thrilling matches for us all to enjoy, none more so than the first round meeting between Elina Svitolina and Garbiñe Muguruza. We wish all the players well and look forward to seeing who will emerge as the champion.”
• Arab No. 1 and World No. 45 Ons Jabeur, who received a wild card into the main draw following her Australian Open quarterfinal performance: “It’s very special for me to be here, to play in an Arabic country. I’ll try to do my best to play well here. Thank you for the wild card and this opportunity. I’m really happy. They told me no pressure, you just have to win the tournament.”