World No 2 and the reigning Australian Open champion, Aryna Sabalenka, has decided to skip the upcoming WTA 1000 tournament in Doha, opting to recover from her efforts in Melbourne, and postponing the highly anticipated duel for the top spot with incumbent Iga Swiatek.
The Qatar Open begins in Doha on Sunday, 11 February, but it will not see the Belarusian for a second year in a row, giving Swiatek an opportunity to extend her lead as the World No 1.
Following the successful defence of her Australian Open title in January, Sabalenka was due to join her fellow WTA Top 10 stars in Doha, but the 25-year-old has revealed that she needs more time to recuperate, as she did last year.
With 1,000 points on offer to the winner of the Qatar Open, Sabalenka’s withdrawal means Swiatek has a chance to give herself a bigger cushion at the top of the rankings.
The Pole started her 89th week at No 1 on Monday, and she is now assured of keeping that spot until the Monday after the Dubai Tennis Championships, which starts on 26 February, which will leave her just 8 weeks shy of 100 weeks at the top.
Swiatek currently holds an 865-point lead over Sabalenka in the official WTA Rankings, which will be reduced to 395 points at the beginning of the Doha tournament as the 4-time major champion is the defending champion, while Coco Gauff is a distant third at the moment.
With no Sabalenka in the draw, it means any points that Swiatek picks up in Doha will give her some extra breathing space at the top, while a title run would see her build a lead of 1,395 points.
Meanwhile, Gauff, the reigning US Open champion, could start to put pressure on Sabalenka in second place if she ends up winning the Qatar Open, which would move her to 8,100 points, and the 19-year old American will get another opportunity to get even closer the following week.
Despite the absence of the Australian Open champion, there will be many tennis stars in Doha, including Gauff, Elena Rybakina and Ons Jabeur, who will also participate in the tournament.
It all means the battle for the top spot in the WTA Rankings could transfer to the Dubai Tennis Championships where another 1,000 points will be on offer, and Swiatek will drop 585 points after finishing runner-up to Barbora Krejcikova there last year.
Sabalenka lost in the quarter-final last year so will drop 215 points, but the gap to the top could be smaller if Swiatek fails to reach the final in Qatar, while the Belarusian could well decide to resume her season in Dubai heading into Indian Wells and Miami.
If she does, then she has a chance to add to her points tally and head towards the World No 1 spot then.
While taking part in the usual photo shoot in Melbourne with the Australian Open cup, Sabalenka talked about the difficulties of dealing with the pressure, especially if she is an emotional person.
“I’m super happy that I managed to win my second Slam,” she said. “I really hope I can build my tennis, improve and keep winning.
“I’m a more open person now. I’m happy to have built some important friendships on the Tour, like the one with Paula Badosa. Before, I was closed and afraid to open up. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m really proud to have taken this step. I have this control over myself, but it hasn’t been easy.
“It’s difficult to improve in this respect when you are such an emotional person and you get emotional all the time. You have to work hard to really have control on the pitch.
“I love my team, because even after a victory like this they immediately think about how we can improve. There is time to enjoy the titles won, but it’s a question of balance,” she added.
It is more than likely that the World No 1 spot could well change hands multiple times before the end of the season, with Sabalenka initially snapping Swiatek’s dominance at the 2023 US Open only for the latter to retake top spot at the WTA Finals.