Dubai Duty Free WTA preview: Kerber eyes No1, but Konta joins injury withdrawals
Johanna Konta pulls out of the Dubai Duty Free WTA tournament at the last minute with a foot injury
Angelique Kerber may have slipped up in the early stages of her campaign to reclaim the No1 ranking from Serena Williams. She made a surprise exit in her first match against 19-year-old Daria Kasatkina, her second loss to the No32 ranked Russian in as many months.
But the Dubai Duty Free Premier 5 event, which gets under way this weekend, offers the German hope of grabbing back the top spot just three weeks after Williams won it back at the Australian Open.
The newly-upgraded Dubai event is now worth 900 points to the champion, and only that will do for Kerber: even a runner-up finish will see her remain just short of Williams, though with negligible points to defend in Indian Wells, the door does remain ajar for Kerber come March.
Remarkably, though, Kerber has only ever won a single match in Dubai in five previous visits, over Svetlana Kuznetsova in 2015, and the draw will again test her fitness and resolve this week.
Her first opponent could be former No1, Jelena Jankovic, whose current lowly ranking of 50 meant she had to qualify for Doha last week. But on a good day, the Serb is always a danger.
Kerber could then face Olympic gold medallist and Doha semi-finalist Monica Puig, followed by Sam Stosur or Elena Vesnina. If she does make it to the semis, she would most likely have to beat one of the two in-form seeds in her half: WTA Finals champion Dominika Cibulkova or Elina Svitolina, who is at a career-high 13 after putting together a 12-3 run so far this season.
In the other half of the draw are the two finalists in this weekend’s Doha final. Both Caroline Wozniacki and Karolina Pliskova will arrive in Dubai fatigued by a rain-blighted week that forced them to play both their quarter and semi matches on Friday, with Wozniacki not completing her win over Puig until the early hours.
Pliskova, seeded No2, does at least get a day’s rest with a bye to the second round. Wozniacki, a former No1 but now ranked 18, does not get any such break, and faces the upwardly mobile Kasatkina in her opener.
The Dane, who won the Dubai title in 2011, could then face No5 seed and French Open champion seed Garbine Muguruza in the third round, followed by another former Dubai champion, 2012 winner Agnieszka Radwanska.
There is no doubting the form of Pliskova, owner of a 14-1 record as she heads to the Doha final. But she too faces a tough opener, either the recent St Petersburg champion Kristina Mladenovic or Shenzhen champion Katerina Siniakova. Her first seed could be No14 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and the quarters threaten either Coco Vandeweghe or 2016 Dubai finalist Barbora Strycova.
Strycova got a late boost—and an opening round bye—when Briton Johanna Konta, the No6 seed, pulled out at the last minute with a foot injury. She told the tournament:
“I’m really sorry to have to withdraw… I came here with every intention of playing and I’m really sad I didn’t get to make my debut here, but health has to come first and it’s a long season.”
The Briton has played an intense season already, opening the year with the semis in Shenzhen, the title in Sydney and a quarter run in Australia, plus sterling efforts for GB in the Fed Cup.
She leaves Strycova in a tricky segment, though: First up, Shuai Peng or Lesia Tsurenko, followed by Vandeweghe in the third round.
The woman to pick up the extra seeding is Yulia Putintseva, who was runner up in St Petersburg and is now promoted to No17 for a first match against Catherine Bellis in Radwanska’s section.
How the draw unfolds, though, may depend upon the fitness and resilience of Wozniacki and Pliskova in this bottom half, while Kerber’s determination to break the curse of Dubai may impact upon the top half.
But with both Williams sisters opting out, and several potential seeds joining the injured Konta on the sidelines—No4 Simona Halep, No8 Kuznetsova, No9 Madison Keys, No11 Petra Kvitova, No14 Carla Suarez Navarro and No15 Timea Bacsinszky—there is room not only for Kerber to break through but for a number of other rising players to make their own statements.
The tournament will hope the weather in Dubai shines rather more than it did in Doha.