Goodbye Australia, Hello Doha & Dubai

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: @samer_alrejjal/Qatar Total Open)

DOHA/WASHINGTON, March 1, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As the WTA Tour waves goodbye to Adelaide and the Australian Swing, it says hello to back-to-back Middle East tournaments in Doha and Dubai.

The WTA 500 Qatar Total Open begins its 19th edition today at the Khalifa International Tennis & Squash Complex featuring a 28-player draw that is led by World No. 5 Elina Svitolina and No. 6 Karolina Pliskova, who won the 2017 title. The singles final is next Saturday. The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in the United Arab Emirates starts a day later.

Ten of the WTA’s Top 20 players are featured in the Doha main draw, including defending champion and World No. 8 Aryna Sabalenka and 2018 champion Petra Kvitova. Other seeds include: Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady, Adelaide International finalist Belinda Bencic and two-time Doha champion (2012-13) Victoria Azarenka, who accepted a wild card into the main draw.

Among the wild cards are two Arab players, No. 114 Mayar Sherif of Egypt and No. 180 Cagla Buyukakcay from Turkey. If Sherif has a good run in Doha and Dubai, she has an outside shot of breaking the Top 100, which would make her just the third Arab woman to do so. One of those who has broken through into the Top 100 is in Doha: Arab No. 1 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia. The 31st-ranked Jabeur will open against a qualifier, then could face No. 2 seed Pliskova in the second round. She comes into Doha following a third-round loss at the Australian Open to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.

Jabeur has always enjoyed playing in both Doha and Dubai. As she explained to media during a sit-down chat on Saturday, “Honestly, I want to aim big in these two tournaments. I think it’s a big deal for an Arab man or woman to win one of these tournaments.”

The ATP Tour will have stops in Doha and Dubai later on in March, but for now the focus is on the women.

“If I were to win a title, I want it to be in either Doha or Dubai,” said the 26-year-old Jabeur, who is 5-3 to start the 2021 season. “I love it here. It doesn’t stress me to play in Arab countries. I want to see more tournaments in the Middle East and maybe North Africa.”

The main draw also includes the return of World No. 11 Kiki Bertens from the Netherlands, who is seeded fifth, and playing for the first time since 2020 Roland Garros after undergoing Achilles surgery in October. She will begin against wild card Jelena Ostapenko and is in Pliskova’s quarter of the draw.

“I’m feeling good. It’s been a long time since I’ve played. I’m ready and hungry to play some matches. Let’s see what the week brings,” said Bertens, during a pre-tournament chat with media Saturday. Bertens arrived early in Doha to get in some extra practice sessions.

“It’s my first tournament in a long time. For me, to be able to compete again, see where my level is and get some match rhythm and enjoy my time on court is my first goal,” Bertens said.

After the resumption of the WTA tour, Bertens lost in the first round at Rome, then had to retire from her second-round match against Ostapenko in Strasbourg the following week. Then, at the French Open, she reached the fourth round before losing to Martina Trevisan. It was soon after that she shut down for the remainder of the season and underwent surgery.

When Tennis TourTalk asked Bertens if it was difficult not being able to compete in this year’s first Grand Slam at the Australian Open, she said: “It was really tough; it’s only the second slam I’ve missed (she also missed last year’s US Open). Having spent the whole winter in the Netherlands for the first time in 10 years was tough; I had to take care of my body. So, I’m glad I did the surgery and happy to be back on court without any pain.”

Conchita Martinez tests positive for coronavirus

Former Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez, who now coaches former World No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza, tested positive for the coronavirus after arriving in Doha for the Qatar Total Open. Martinez said on social media that she is isolating at a Doha hospital. However, her setback hasn’t stopped her from being able to offer Muguruza coaching advice as Muguruza showed in a social media post on Saturday.

Dubai DFTC to be spectator free

Owners and organizers of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships said the two-week event, which includes WTA 1000 (March 7-13) and ATP 1000 (March 14-20) events, will be hosted in line with Covid-19 guidelines and will be spectator free.

“We are putting all the precautions in place to ensure the safest of environments for everyone involved,” Tournament Director Salah Tahlak said. “Although tennis fans will not be able to be present at the tournament, the good news is that Dubai Sports Channel will carry each and every match played on Centre Court live from first ball to last, so everyone will be able to watch their favourite players in Dubai. The global media coverage of the tournament last year was estimated at $1 billion (US dollars), so the eyes of the world will be on Dubai over the two weeks of the tournament.”

By the numbers

What they’re saying

During her press conference after winning the Adelaide International Saturday, Iga Swiatek said her next tournament would be the WTA 1000 in Dubai, which begins next Sunday.

“I’m planning to go to Dubai. Yesterday (Friday), we decided after the match we’re going to withdraw from Doha because of some intense weeks here,” she said. “I don’t want to have injury or anything. I want my body to rest properly. Also, I’m going to have more time to fight with jet lag, just travel in peace, not in a hurry.

“These kinds of things really have a big impact.”

Meanwhile, Belinda Bencic said she was very impressed with Swiatek’s game after losing the Adelaide International final, in their first career head-to-head meeting.

“I think she has a really big game. It’s very unique. I struggled a lot today with how differently she played – I just couldn’t figure out, like, her patterns or her serve, or anything at all,” Bencic said.

“Then my game, it didn’t fall apart, but I couldn’t get into my game at all. That’s what she does well. She’s playing very freely, still very confident. For sure, very impressive, and congratulations to her.”

What they’re writing‘s Steve Tignor writes that every second Iga Swiatek’s on a tennis court, it has a purpose.

What they’re sharing on social media

David Goffin / It’s been a long and tough way