The Middle East swing has moved to the Qatar TotalEnergies Open in Doha this week, where Iga Swiatek, the World No 1, returns to the WTA Tour to lead a packed field, which has seen 32 players competing over the weekend for 4 precious spots in the main draw where the top 4 seeds receive byes into the 2nd-round.
Exactly what I needed was to reset it a little bit, and I knew what I did wrong at the Australian Open and over my whole stay in Australia I really wanted to focus on getting my expectations lower and not expect from myself that I’m gonna, you know, play perfectly all the time. Because, yeah, last season was so strange, actually, that it can actually mess up with your head a little bit. Iga Świątek
Swiatek has the chance to join a select group of 4 players who have 2 title wins apiece in Doha when, this week, she defends the title that kick-started her record-breaking season last year.
The 21-year old Pole hopes to join Russians Anastasia Myskina (2003 and 2004) and Maria Sharapova (2005 and 2008), Victoria Azarenka (2012 and 2013) of Belarus and Petra Kvitova (2018 and 2021) of the Czech Republic as the only past champions who have lifted the revered Falcon Trophy more than once.
Swiatek, the defending champion, arrived in Doha with 3 Grand Slam titles under her belt, and posting a staggering 67 wins in 2022 to cement her status as the undisputed World No 1.
She beat Anett Kontaveit in straight sets in the final here last year, but the former World No 2 from Estonia is dealing with a back injury and and is not competing in either Doha or next week’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Kontaveit is currently undergoing treatment on her back and is hoping to get back for Indian Wells and Miami.
“Hi! Just wanna keep you guys posted,” she announced on Instagram. “It has been a tough beginning for 2023. I have been feeling my back in most matches that I have played since October last year.
“I have been trying to help myself and get treatment and work out as much as possible but for some reason this thing has been coming back every time I play competitively. So I’ve decided to take a few weeks, which unfortunately means I have to skip tournaments in Doha and Dubai.
“I am working with my team to help myself as much as I can and I really hope to be ready for IW and Miami in March. Thank you for your continuous support.”
Also absent this week are Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur through injury, and current World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka from Belraus, who has not played since her Australian Open triumph, while runner-up Elena Rybakina is taking a rest between Abu Dhabi last week, and Dubai next.
Nevertheless, the draw is brimming with talent as 7 of the Top 10 in the world have turned up.
Swiatek will face either American Danielle Collins or Belgian qualifier Elise Mertens in the 2nd-round, which will be her first competitive match since a shock early exit from the Australian Open to eventual finalist Rybakina.
The young Pole admits she was plagued by a desire to play perfect matches every time she stepped on court in Australia.
“Exactly what I needed was to reset it a little bit, and I knew what I did wrong at the Australian Open and over my whole stay in Australia,” Swiatek said over the weekend. “I really wanted to focus on getting my expectations lower and not expect from myself that I’m gonna, you know, play perfectly all the time.
“Because, yeah, last season was so strange, actually, that it can actually mess up with your head a little bit.”
Swiatek has relished getting some preparation time in ahead of her return to action.
“I really wanted to get both my feet on the ground, just focus on hard work and what I have to do on court,” she said. “I was really happy because we did.
“I would say even in the last part of the preseason, our practices were really intense and, like, the volume was also pretty big. So I feel like I could really focus on the technical stuff and just improve as a player.”
The Doha title will take some defending with the draw anchored by World No 4 Jessica Pegula, the 2nd seed from America, who is a potential final opponent for Swiatek, if she can repeat her 2022 run.
7th seed Belinda Bencic, who won the WTA 500 title in Abu Dhabi on Sunday, or former World No 1 Azarenka could be potential quarter-final opponents for Swiatek, but first the Swiss must navigate past Bulgarian qualifier Viktoriya Tomova.
Azarenka reached the 2nd-round on Monday with a 6-1 6-1 win over Turkey’s Ipek Oz, needing a little over an hour to defeat her fellow wild-card.
Both had a high first-serve percentages, with Oz putting in 77% of her first serves while Azarenka landed 70%, but where the Turk won only 32% of her first-serve points, her 33-year-old opponent won 78%.
Azarenka also won 50% of her second-serve points and 60% points on return on Oz’s second serve, and although she did did lose her serve once in the match, the Belarusian went on to convert 6 break points on the World No 196’s serve.
On a possible semi-final collision course with Swiatek is 4th seed Coco Gauff, the 18-year old American, who will take on either China’s Zhang Shuai or double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova from the Czech Republic in her first match in round 2.
“I have had good preparation after the Australia Open as I was back home for two weeks before coming here,” Kvitova told reporters on Sunday. “It’s always great to be back in Doha, and I am looking forward to another good event.
“Such great players playing in this tournament. It’s a tough field and I am taking it step-by-step.
“I know the conditions here. It’s windy some times, especially in the night. It’s a beautiful tournament though.”
8th seed Veronika Kudermetova also moved into the 2nd-round on Monday after a lengthy tussle with former Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova, needing 3 hours to defeat the Czech, 6-4 3-6 7-6(5).
Both won 73% of their first-serve points, but while Krejcikova also had more winners to her opponent, 41 to the latter’s 27, Kudermetova made fewer unforced errors, 18 to 25.
The match saw just 2 breaks of serve, one of which was traded by both players in the deciding set.
Either wild-carded former Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin from the USA or Liudmila Samsonova, another Russian and Abu Dhabi finalist, will be Kudermetova’s next test.
France’s Caroline Garcia, the 3rd seed, and 5th-seeded Maria Sakkari have landed in the 3rd quarter, with the Greek set to face 2022 WTA Newcomer of the year Zheng Qinwen from China in the 1st-round.
With a bye into round 2, Garcia meets Czech Karolina Muchova, who also won her 1st-round match on Monday in Doha, defeating Roland Garros semi-finalist Martina Trevisan from Italy, 6-2 6-2, in just 79 minutes.
Muchova fired 6 aces across the match, and won 77% of her first-serve points to Trevisan’s 57%, while she also won 70% of her second-serve points, and 63% points on return on the Italian’s second serve.
The 26-year-old saved both break points she faced while converting 4 break points on her opponent’s serve.
Pegula is at the bottom of the draw and will either take on Jelena Ostapenko, a past champion at Roland Garros from Latvia, or fellow American Madison Keys, in potential blockbuster matches.
In preparation, Pegula played a friendly match with compatriot Sofia Kenin at the Old Doha Port to promote the WTA 500 tournament and showcase their skills with some practice ahead of their respective campaigns.
An important historical site in Qatar, the Old Doha Port is well-known for its attractive architecture and lively atmosphere, and fans in the area were thrilled by the preview the two players offered.
Also in the bottom quarter is 6th seed and top-ranked Russian Daria Kasatkina who, if she can get past Canadian qualifier Rebecca Marino, will play Spain’s Paula Badosa or Beatriz Haddad Maia from Brazil in a challenging but tantalising encounter.
There has already been fierce action at the Khalifa Tennis and Squash Complex, with stellar matches in qualifying and two former champions successfully navigating their way through 3 rounds to advance.
On Monday, Czech 2017 titlist Karolina Pliskova defeated former US Open finalist Leylah Fernandez from Canada, 6-2 7-5, and 2019 winner Mertens battled past Romanian Elena-Gabriela Ruse, 6-4 2-6 6-4 to return to the Doha main draw.
Pliskova battled past Ana Bogdan from Romania, 3-6 6-2 6-3, in her opener before taking out Britain’s Harriet Dart, 6-4 6-1, in her second match, while Mertens saw off local Qatari wild-card Mubaraka Al-Naimi without losing a game and France’s Magdalena Frech, 6-2 3-6 6-0.
Marino also made it through by downing Marie Bouzkova of the Czech Republic, 7-5 6-1, as did Tomova, who took out American Madison Brengle, 6-3 6-3.