Elena Svitolina Image Credit: Gulf News Archive

Dubai: First, it was Maria Sharapova. Then came the announcement of pullout of world No. 2 Simona Halep, followed by US Open runner-up Madison Keys.

All were last-minute withdrawals following injuries or illness from this week’s Dubai Tennis Championships that gets under way at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium from Monday.

But despite all these drawbacks, Dubai really cannot complain as the women’s field still looks strong with Saturday’s draws throwing up a few exciting match-ups. The current line-up boasts of five former world No. 1s and four players, who between them, have won as many as six Grand Slams. The array of former world No. 1s includes reigning Wimbledon champion and former French Open champion Garbine Muguruza, Sydney champion and two-time Grand Slam winner Angelique Kerber and 2016 US Open finalist Karolina Pliskova.

Joining them is defending Dubai champion and last month’s Brisbane winner Elina Svitolina, two-time Wimbledon champion and former Dubai champion Petra Kvitova along with the likes of Caroline Garcia of France, Julia Goerges and Australia’s best player Ashleigh Barty.

However, injuries and illnesses are the bane of sport as always. “There are some things that we really cannot have within our control, and one of these is that these players are humans like us and they can fall ill or get injured from time to time. Over the years, we have assembled possibly a field of players that could even match a Grand Slam. And this year too we are beginning well with the women,” Tournament Director Salah Tahlak told Gulf News.

“The injuries to players have robbed us to a certain extent. But besides that, where else can you possibly expect a line-up of stars like we have this week?” he asked.

“We’ve had the draw on Saturday and I am convinced fans can expect some fantastic tennis action during the course of the week,” he insisted.

By far, defending Dubai champion Svitolina is the one to watch as she braces for a Round Two meeting against either Kiki Bertens or one of the four qualifiers. The rise of the 23-year-old has been well documented with her Dubai triumph acting as the spark at the same time last year. She took off well last week in Doha till she came up against Petra Kvitova in their Round Three encounter. Known for her power and reach for the ball, Svitolina rode on her Dubai success to become the first Ukrainian woman to break into the top-10.

Svitolina has proved how lethal she can be with victories in the past over Grand Slam champions including Angelique Kerber, Garbine Muguruza and Kvitova — all of who figure in the Dubai draw.

Then there is one of the former world No. 1s in Muguruza, who made it to the final of the Qatar Open against Kvitova on Sunday. Venezuelan by birth, but opting for a Spanish citizenship to further her tennis career, Muguruza has so far won five singles titles, including her two prized ones at the 2016 French Open followed by Wimbledon last year. Having turned professional in 2012, the 24-year-old is equipped with powerful groundstrokes and an aggressive style that is bound to flourish on the quick courts of Dubai.

The lanky Karolina Pliskova (left) so far has nine singles and five doubles titles on the WTA Tour. Last year was special for the 25-year-old Czech as she peaked at world No. 1, thus becoming the sixth player to reach the top position without having won a Grand Slam. She was also the first female player representing the Czech Republic to achieve the feat.

Now ranked No. 4, Pliskova is known for her extremely aggressive style highlighted by her powerful, accurate serve and her forceful groundstrokes. Her first Grand Slam final was at the 2016 US Open, where she ended runner-up to Kerber in three sets.

Then there is Jelena Ostapenko (Left), who was handed out a wild card by Tahlak following the exploits of the 20-year-old girl from Latvia. The unheralded Ostapenko upset the form book and the odds while winning the French Open singles crown last year to become the first player from Latvia to claim a Grand Slam tournament while also becoming the first unseeded player to win the French Open since 1933.

Others to watch out are French girl Caroline Garcia, ninth-ranked Kerber who could hit a more consistent note due to her favoured hard courts, and Great Britain’s highest ranked Johanna Konta — who comes here as one of four wild cards.

“Honestly, we could not have expected a better line-up. It’s all to play for in Dubai,” Tahlak said.