Dubai’s big prize-money—a purse of more than $2.8 million—and warm, dry conditions are almost tailor-made for the transition from the Australian Open swing towards North America and have ensured that almost every top-20 player is among the 56-woman draw. The only absentees are No3 Sloane Stephens, who plays Acapulco next week, No10 Serena Williams, and No14 Caroline Wozniacki, who was forced to withdraw as she prepares to undergo medical tests for viral illness.
Among the big names drawing the crowds, however, are former Dubai champions Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, plus the woman who has won in Dubai for the last two years, Elina Svitolina. Could the current world No8 make it a hat-trick in the desert, after the disappointment of letting a 4-1 lead slip in her three-set loss to Halep in Doha last week?
Well the Ukrainian 24-year-old did so with room to spare. She beat No12 Garbine Muguruza in just 62 minutes, 6-1, 6-2, to set a quarter-final against the unseeded Carla Suarez Navarro
But what of Naomi Osaka, who was playing her first tournament as the new World No1?
Following her victory at the Australian Open, she arrived in Dubai with the unexpected news that she had split with her coach Sascha Bajin after her Melbourne title run.
This time last year, she was about to break the top 50 for the first time, made her huge break-through to win Indian Wells, and followed it with victory at the US Open. Still just 21 year old, she is now the player with the target on her back, and this quietly-spoken young champion showed just what pressure she is under after an opening loss to the same woman she beat in Dubai last year, Kristina Mladenovic.
Questions concerning the absence of a coach reduced her to tears, as she reflected on her match:
“I haven’t been practising well recently. I just thought it would go away during the matches. I was kind of counting on that. That didn’t happen, so… Yeah, I don’t really like attention. It’s been a little tough.”
And on defending her Indian Wells title, she added:
“I’m not really sure because I’ve never been a defending champion. Hopefully I remember all the good times that I’ve had there. Somehow, I don’t know, start feeling better about myself. But I can’t really say until I get there.”
The No1 ranking is not on the line in Dubai, but it could change hands again come Indian Wells, as world No2 Halep and No4 Kvitova both aim to close the gap on Osaka courtesy of the 900 points available to the winner this week. And both women moved into the quarter-finals after overcoming second-set challenges.
Halep came through a 6-3, 7-5 victory over Lesia Tsurenko, winning the first set with ease, despite there being six service breaks. She then faced the prospect of a third set as her opponent served at 5-4 to level the match, but Halep raised her game as she responded by winning the final 12 points of the match.
She said afterwards:
“Better for me because I didn’t want to play three sets, so it was good that I could finish it. I think when I lost some games in the second set, it was because I played too much in the middle. So I started to use less pace, less power, and opened the court more.”
Following a fourth-round run at the Australian Open, two Fed Cup wins, and her runner-up finish in Doha last week, Halep has played a lot of matches in recent weeks, so her reluctance to play a three-setter was understandable. She went on:
“My mind-set now is just to finish the points as quick as possible. I’m trying to be more aggressive. I feel good on court. I feel that my game is pretty strong, also physically, even if I’m tired a little bit. Yeah, I feel close to my highest level.”
Halep will play either Belinda Bencic or No8 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the quarters.
Meanwhile, Kvitova, who is in the other half of the draw, fought off qualifier Jennifer Brady to win 7-5, 1-6, 6-3. It was the second consecutive day that the popular Czech had been drawn into a three-set fight. After taking more than two and a half hours to beat Katerina Siniakova in her opener, she spent another two and a quarter hours on court against Brady.
“Definitely it’s a relief right now. I tried to be quicker today than yesterday. I did a little bit better, but still was pretty tough. The wind was just terrible today, to be honest. It was really difficult to find a way with it. I couldn’t really serve well today at all.
“It’s been a big struggle for me. I came here, I didn’t really have many days of practice. I had something different to do in my life. I wasn’t really that prepared for this tournament. But I’m happy that I was able to get those two wins, which I think is great when you aren’t playing your best and you still find a way to win.”
Kvitova will next play Viktoria Kuzmova, who rallied to overcome Sofia Kenin, 1-6, 7-5, 6-2. And further ahead, she can meet either No4 seed Karolina Pliskova or Su-Wei Hsieh, who scored a big win over No5 seed Angelique Kerber, 5-7, 6-4, 6-0.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge