Top-flight tennis returns to Dubai on February 19 with the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Eighteen of the world’s top 20 women players will chase the WTA 1000 title at the Aviation Club courts in the 23rd staging of the event, which Colm McLoughlin, executive vice-chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free, said is a testament to the growth of the women’s game in Dubai.
“I’m absolutely thrilled with how the whole tournament has progressed, and especially from the WTA side. We continue to attract the biggest names in tennis to our event each year,” McLoughlin said ahead of the 2023 event.
The tournament has come a long way since Switzerland’s Martina Hingis won the inaugural competition in 2001. It now alternates between a WTA 1000 level tournament and a WTA 500 level tournament each year. Belgian Justine Henin has been the dominant force between 2003 and 2007, winning the singles title four times.
23 years of consistent growth
A pivotal moment occurred in 2005 when the Dubai championships became the third professional tennis event to implement an equal prize money policy after the US Open and Australian Open.
Looking at the past 23 years, Tournament Director Salah Tahlak said: “Our event has grown exponentially. From the beginning, the goal was to attract as many of the top players as possible, and this year’s line-up really highlights that the goal has been achieved.”
Eighteen top 20 players in the draw reflect the intense interest in the Dubai tournament and give a fair idea of the intensity of contests over seven days. World number one Iga Swiatek of Poland headlines the event, where she faces stiff completion from the newly minted Australian Open champion and Word No 2 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus.
Dubai hasn’t been a happy hunting ground for Swiatek, winner of three Grand Slam titles. The Pole failed to progress beyond the third round in the previous two attempts, so the 21-year-old from Warsaw will be keen to put the setbacks behind her this time.
That’s by no means easy. Swiatek’s biggest hurdle comes in the shape and form of Sabalenko, fresh from her maiden Grand Slam win in Melbourne. The Belarussian has been a frequent visitor to Dubai since 2017 but hasn’t had much success. In the recent World Tennis League in Dubai, the 24-year-old lost to Swiatek, and the Dubai Open offers her a chance to gain revenge and make her mark on the tournament.
Missing in the fray is a Dubai crowd favourite Ons Jabeur, who is nursing an injury. The first Arab to reach a Grand Slam final (Wimbledon and US Open) and the highest-ranked African in tennis history, the Tunisian’s absence will be sorely felt. The 28-year-old is the lone absentee from the top 10, allowing Jessica Pegula to become the third seed.
Grand Slam winners galore
The American leads a host of other stars that include Caroline Garcia (France), 2022 French Open finalist Coco Gauff (US), Maria Sakkari (Greece), Daria Kasatkina (Russia), Belinda Bencic (Switzerland), Elenla Rybakina (Kazakhstan) and last year’s finalist Veronika Kudermetova (Russia), who won the 2022 doubles in the company of Belgian Elise Martens. World No 9 Bencic will be high on confidence after dispatching Liudmila Samsonova to win the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open, but her fitness will be a worry after pulling out of the Qatar Open complaining of exhaustion.
Jelena Ostapenka, the 2017 French Open winner, will be back to defend her 2022 Dubai title, but the Lavtian World No 14 will have to contend with a star-filled field. That includes Wimbledon queen Elena Rybakina, the Australian Open runner-up, Victoria Azarenka, Bianca Andreescu and Barbora Krejcikova.
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Then there are the veterans Petra Kvitova and Simona Halep, who have four Grand Slams between them. They may be past their peak and have dropped out of the top 10 WTA ranking, but they still pack a punch. The 2017 US Open finalist Madison Keys, Dubai-based Spaniard Paula Badosa and Brazilian No.1 Beatriz Haddad Maia could pull off a surprise or two.
Jabeur may not be there, but another crowd favourite Sania Mirza of India will rock the Dubai tennis stadium as she bids farewell to the WTA tour after an 18-year career that brought her six Grand Slam doubles titles, three of them in mixed. Mirza, 36, had a career-high singles ranking of No. 27 in 2007 and became No. 1 in doubles.
A Dubai resident, she’s been a perennial favourite with the huge Indian expat population in the UAE. Mirza and Rohan Bopanna emerged runners-up in mixed doubles at the 2023 Australian Open, and Mirza will want to sign off on a high in Dubai.
A purse of $2.8 million is up for grabs. Given the high quality of the field, the 2023 Dubai tournament will likely witness many keenly fought matches. What more can a tennis buff ask?