Play got under way in the 21st edition of the Dubai Duty Free Championships this weekend in the qualifying competition, while early main draw action began on Sunday, with top seed Elena Svitolina bidding for her 3rd DDF crown behind closed doors due to Covid-19 restrictions.
I wish I could play against Garbiñe Muguruza. I mean it would be a really tough match, but we played some practices and yeah, I would like to know how things would look against her, because she's playing a really solid game and she can play fast, she can play topspin and slower and faster, so I would have to adjust during the match. That would be hard for me, but I would [like to] play against her. Iga Świątek
There are several Grand Slam winners in the field, including Angelique Kerber, Victoria Azarenka, Petra Kvitoa, Garbiñe Muguruza, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Iga Swiatek.
While 12 of the Top 20 are present, absent at the WTA 1000 tournament are World Nos 1, 2 and 3 – Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka and Simona Halep.
The Romanian is the defending champion after Halep defeated Elena Rybakina, 3-6 6-3 7-6(5), in a match that was voted the 2020 Match of the Year, but she will not be here as she is still healing from the low back issue that plagued her in Australia.
Svitolina’s path is not an easy one and, while she receives a first round bye, she meets 3-time Dubai finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova from Russia, who outlasted China’s Qiang Wang, 6-4 1-6 7-5, on Sunday to reach in round 2.
If the 2017 and 2018 champion makes it to the quarter-finals, the Ukrainian could then find 2019 winner and No 6 seed Belinda Bencic from Switzerland in her way.
Bencic opens her campaign against Veronika Kudermetova, who defeated Anastasia Pavyluchekova in all-Russian affair, 7-6(2) 6-2.
“It is clear that there will be many intriguing matches during the coming week, not least in the early rounds,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “We welcome the players and officials and look forward to seeing so many of the world’s top players entertain us.”
The top 8 seeds, all of whom receive first round byes, are Svitolina (1), Karolina Pliskova (2), Aryna Sabalenka (3), Kvitova (4), Kiki Bertens (5), Bencic (6), Azarenka (7) and Swiatek (8).
Svitolina has said the drop in WTA prize money has reduced her motivation at some events but added that players must learn to adjust their expectations.
The total prize money on offer in Dubai this year has gone down to $1,835,490 from $2,794,840 last season, with the singles champion set to take home $221,500 instead of the $696,860 pay-check scooped by the winner 12 months ago, which is a 68 per cent decrease in the prize money for the singles champion.
Kvitova earned $68,570 for lifting the trophy in Doha on Saturday, 57 per cent less than what the champion made in Qatar two years ago.
The earlier Abu Dhabi 500 event, staged at the start of this season to give players an opportunity to compete after the cancellation of the Brisbane International, offered a total prize pot of $565,530 , all of which was put up by the WTA Tour itself, compared to the $1,434,900 provided by Brisbane last year.
“I had to adjust, like for example with my team, with my daily life,” Svitolina told reporters in Dubai. “Maybe be a little bit smarter and I think for everyone it’s important to readjust because right now there is definitely a significant change in the prize money.
“I think it’s really not easy for some players to adjust and for me, personally, it’s maybe also a little bit [tough] right now, because we’re a bit spoiled from the years that the prize money was really high.”
The 26-year-old, who owns 15 WTA titles and has amassed more than $20 million in prize money throughout her career, noted that the recent developments could have an impact on her scheduling.
“Now for sure it gets into your head that, you know, you have less motivation at some tournaments to play because the prize money is much lower, and you’re playing, for example, a smaller tournament and you’re tired afterwards to play a big one, so you would skip it,” she explained.
“So that, for sure, plays a little role in the motivation, in my opinion. Hopefully we can step by step improve and get back to where we were before.”
Belarusian No 3 seed Sabalenka said that she feels no different earning less money at WTA tournaments but joked that her ‘bank account is feeling the difference’.
The 22-year-old, a title winner already this season in Abu Dhabi, does, however, miss the human interaction with members of the media at events.
“I prefer to see you guys in person, actually, I prefer that everything gets back to normal life,” Sabalenka told journalists during her virtual press conference on Sunday.
“I feel okay with this kind of Zoom press conference, but I feel better emotionally to see each other and to have this eye contact when you guys ask me some questions.”
Second-seeded Pliskova, who reached the 2015 final, could face Azarenka or Kerber in the quarter-finals, while Sabalenka will play finalist Alizé Cornet, who beat Daria Kasatkina, 6-4 3-6 6-1, on Sunday in the second round, and 5th seed Bertens has the sensational teenager Coco Gauff, 12th seed Marketa Vondrousova and Rybakina as well as Kvitova in her section of the draw.
Swiatek, the Roland Garros champion, makes her Dubai debut this week, and will face either Polona Hercog or a qualifier.
The 19-year Pole’s rise over the past 6 months has been astronomical, and includes her first WTA 500 title two weeks ago in Adelaide.
“I wish I could play against Garbiñe Muguruza,” Swiatek told reporters in Adelaide when asked who she is looking forward to playing for the first time.
“I mean it would be a really tough match, but we played some practices and yeah, I would like to know how things would look against her, because she’s playing a really solid game and she can play fast, she can play topspin and slower and faster, so I would have to adjust during the match.
“That would be hard for me, but I would [like to] play against her.”
She may get her wish as the Spaniard, seeded 9th, is in Swiatek’s quarter.
Muguruza has pulled ahead on the Stat Leaderboard and leads the tour in match-wins in 2021, with a 12-4 record.
Already the season leader in finals made at the Yarra Valley Classic and Doha, the Spaniard is bidding to win her first title since 2019 Monterrey and her biggest since 2017 Cincinnati.
Muguruza opens against a qualifier in the first round and could face either Amanda Anisimova or another qualifier in the round 2 and if she clears these, there could be a Round of 16 encounter with Swiatek for a chance to face Sabalenka in the quarter-finals.
Local interest deservedly centres around Ons Jabeur from Tunisia, who has demonstrated that she can challenge the very best as she continues to be a trail blazer for Arab women.
On Sunday she saw off Czech Katerina Siniakova, 6-2 6-3, to advance in the section of the draw that includes Kvitova, Bertens, Rybakina, Vondrousova and Gauff.
“We are happy to award wild cards this week to Coco Gauff, Timea Babos and Anastasia Potapova,” said Tournament Director Salah Tahlak. “Still only 16, Coco Gauff has made a huge impact on the sport, not only winning her first career title last in Linz where she earned her first win over a top 10 opponent but reaching the fourth round of Wimbledon as a qualifier. She was also a semi-finalist in Adelaide last month.
“Timea Babos is not only a fine singles player with three singles titles and a further five finals to her name, but an outstanding doubles player four Grand Slam crowns.
“Anastasia Potapova is a rising star who won the 2016 Junior Wimbledon title and was ranked as the junior world number one, and last year she reached three quarter-finals on the WTA Tour.”
Following the WTA1000 event will be the equally exciting ATP contest for the title, headed by reigning US Open champion and World No 4 Dominic Thiem, who will be in competition for the title against five-time 2020 title-winner and world number eight Andrey Rublev, 2021 ATP Cup finalist Matteo Berrettini, three-time Grand Slam champion Stan Wawrinka, 2020 US Open quarter-finalist Denis Shapovalov, 2020 Dubai semi-finalist Gael Monfils, 2018 Dubai champion Roberto Bautista Agut, 2021 Montpellier winner David Goffin and 2020 US Open semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta.
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai.
After the Dubai final scheduled for Saturday, the next WTA 1000 tournament is the Miami Open, which starts on 23 March and runs until 3 April.