ABU DHABI: Women’s professional tennis will take over the Gulf region this month with the world’s best players set to compete in tournaments in Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai over the course of the next three weeks.
From world No.1 Iga Swiatek, to Tunisian trailblazer Ons Jabeur, to the recently-crowned Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, there will be no shortage of top talent throughout this Middle East swing.
Here’s a look at some of the main storylines heading into this exciting three-week stretch.
Abu Dhabi enters the ring
While this isn’t the first time the UAE capital is hosting a WTA tournament, it’s the first time the emirate has been given a permanent slot on the women’s tennis calendar.
Abu Dhabi came to the rescue at the start of the 2021 season when the tour needed a place that could stage an event during the pandemic.
A one-year license was given to Abu Dhabi and the tournament was held behind closed doors.
Things are different this time around. The Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open is meant to be a regular fixture on the WTA calendar and its introduction this season (from February 5-12) has made way for a three-week Middle East swing set to take place in February every year.
Jabeur was meant to be the main star attraction this week in the UAE capital, given her popularity in the region as the highest-ranked Arab player in history. The Tunisian was forced to withdraw though due to a knee injury but her name is still on the entry lists for Doha and Dubai.
A stellar week of tennis is still guaranteed in Abu Dhabi with three top-10 players – Daria Kasatkina, Belinda Bencic and Elena Rybakina – headlining a strong field at the inaugural WTA 500 event at Zayed Sports City.
Popcorn first rounds in the capital
The stacked draw in Abu Dhabi has resulted in some incredible match-ups from the get-go.
In a showdown between two ex-world No.1s, Spanish wildcard Garbine Muguruza will take on Czech Republic’s Karolina Pliskova in the opening round. The winner of this clash will square off against reigning Wimbledon champion Rybakina.
Former Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko will commence her campaign against 2022 Australian Open finalist Danielle Collins, while former world No.2 Paula Badosa kicks off her Abu Dhabi journey against Russian world No.19 Liudmila Samsonova.
Sabalenka on a streak
With an 11-0 win-loss record for the season, and two titles under her belt, including a maiden Grand Slam crown at the Australian Open, Sabalenka will have all eyes on her when she touches down in the Middle East to take part in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships (begins February 19).
The Belarusian world No.2 has tasted success in the Gulf in the past, having lifted trophies in Abu Dhabi in 2021 and in Doha in 2020, but will be seeking a maiden triumph in Dubai.
Swiatek back to defend Doha title
The Qatar Open was where Swiatek began her incredible 37-match winning streak last year and the top-ranked Pole will make a return to the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex, searching for a first title of the season.
Swiatek’s banner 2022 saw her capture eight titles, including two Grand Slams, but her 2023 campaign has yet to gather steam as she lost with Poland in the United Cup semi-finals in Australia last month, before falling to Rybakina in the Australian Open fourth round.
Swiatek is also scheduled to compete in the WTA 1000 tournament in Dubai, where all members of the world’s top-10 – and 19 of the world’s top-20 – are down to take part.
Ostapenko searches for Dubai repeat
A stellar effort from Ostapenko saw her grab the title in Dubai last year with victory over Veronika Kudermetova in the final, a win that allowed the Latvian to return to the top-20 for the first time since October 2018.
Ostapenko defeated four fellow Grand Slam champions en route to the 2022 Dubai crown – Sofia Kenin, Swiatek, Petra Kvitova, and Simona Halep – and she came back from a set down in three of those encounters.
She will be looking to become the first back-to-back women’s champion in Dubai since Elina Svitolina pulled off a double in 2017 and 2018.
The fiery French Open winner has a positive start to her 2023, reaching the quarter-finals at the Australian Open last month.
Mirza all set for career finale
Indian tennis icon Sania Mirza will contest the last two tournaments of her professional career in Abu Dhabi, alongside Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Dubai, alongside Madison Keys.
A former doubles world No.1, who peaked at 27 in the world in singles back in 2007, Mirza will bid farewell to the tour after a trailblazing 20-year professional career.
The 36-year-old initially intended to retire from tennis at the end of last season but an elbow injury ruled her out of the US Open and ended her 2022 prematurely.
A six-time major champion across doubles and mixed doubles, Mirza almost added a seventh Grand Slam trophy to her resume last month when she reached the mixed doubles final at the Australian Open alongside her compatriot Rohan Bopanna.
Mirza, who is a Dubai resident, will say her final goodbye at the DDF Tennis Championships, where thousands of her adoring fans will undoubtedly show up for her swan song.