This week’s Premier event in Dubai boats such a strong field that the likes of Eugenie Bouchard and Anastasia Pavyluchenkova have had to enter qualifying. The 28-player main draw features seven of the work’s top ten, including the Queen Bee herself, Serena Williams.
Check out the Full Draw Here: WTA Dubai Duty Free Championships 2014 Draw
The world number one pulled out of Doha last week citing a back injury, but took a late wild card into the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, perhaps wary of going from the Australian Open to Miami without playing a single match. This marks the American’s first appearance in Dubai since 2009 and only third overall: it is one of the few trophies missing from her jam-packed cabinet.
After a first round bye, Serena will face either Alisa Kleybanova or Ekaterina Makarova. She has never played the former, and although she famously lost to Makarova in the fourth round of the 2012 Australian Open, it would be a massive surprise if she fell to the Russian in Dubai. Any one of the four players bidding to be Serena’s quarter-final opponent would make a worthy foe. Jelena Jankovic is the eighth seed and always raises her game against the Williams sisters – she takes on a battle-tested qualifier in round one. The remaining opening round match in the top quarter sees Sloane Stephens and Lucie Safarova face off for the first time. Safarova looked solid in Doha last week, pushing compatriot Petra Kvitova to three tough sets, whereas Stephens just looked solidly annoyed. Shooting disapproving looks to her camp as she fluffed serves and missed easy putaways during a desultory early loss, the Floridian is under pressure to prove not only that she can compete at the highest level, but also that she wants to.
Kvitova is the highest seed in the second section of the Dubai draw, and will be looking to rebound from a thrashing at the hands of Jankovic last week. The Czech has been blighted by illness at the start of 2014, a disappointing setback for a a player who ended last season on the ascent. With a combined 7-1 win-loss record against her potential second round opponents, the struggling Carla Suarez Navarro and the fading Nadia Petrova, Petra should make it out of the gate in Dubai. But can she summon the confidence required to make the latter stages? She is seeded to meet Simona Halep in the quarter-finals, and if the Romanian can reproduce her stellar play from Doha, she’ll be tough to beat. The newest member of the WTA top ten, Halep will also be buoyed by the knowledge that she demolished Kvitova in their only previous encounter, last summer’s New Haven final.
The third quarter of the Dubai draw is full of women who are not playing as well as they used to. Sara Errani is the fourth seed, but has lost to several lowly ranked opponents this year and could muster only two games against Halep in Qatar. Although always a pleasure to watch, the diminutive counter-puncher will be hard-pressed to defend her runner-up points from Dubai 2013. Errani’s doubles partner, Roberta Vinci, has endured a miserable start to the year, losing all five of her singles matches. She’ll have to reverse that trend in Dubai if she is to book a second round date with her fellow Italian.
Elsewhere, we find Caroline Wozniacki, Sabine Lisicki and Sam Stosur desperately hoping to gather some momentum. Wozniacki lost to Yanina Wickmayer in straight sets last week, an inauspicious beginning to her latest coaching partnership. Lisicki has done little of note since her Wimbledon heroics, posting an unremarkable 3-3 record in 2014. The Wozniacki-Lisicki first round clash in Dubai therefore represents a prime opportunity for both players to register a confidence-boosting victory. Stosur at least managed to win a round in Doha, but her loss to Jana Cepelova was the latest head-scratcher in a career spattered with puzzling results. The Aussie knows she could overcome a sub-par Wozniacki or Lisicki to make the last eight, but to set up that meeting she’ll have to get past a qualifier – a much trickier task than usual given the strength of the qualifying draw.
One of the standout first round matches in Dubai sees the in-form Angelique Kerber take on Ana Ivanovic, Serena’s conqueror in Melbourne. Ivanovic leads the pair’s head-to-head 3-2, but Kerber has won the two most recent meetings, and will be the more confident following impressive performances in Fed Cup and Doha. The winner of this match could face another big-game opponent in the last 16: Venus Williams. Venus was unlucky to lose a nail-biting third set tie-breaker to Kvitova last week, having produced much better tennis than she did at the Australian Open. But to get to the second round in Dubai she’ll have to take down a recent nemesis. Elena Vesnina is one of the few players on tour who has never lost to Venus – she dismantled her at Wimbledon 2012 and won a tough three-setter in Cincinnati last year. Steady if never spectacular, she’ll use all her doubles smarts to try and make it a hat-trick of victories this week.
For the second week in a row, Agnieszka Radwanska is the second seed at a major event. Now ranked third in the world, the Pole is a reliable and reliably entertaining top tier player, beloved by fans of unorthodox shotmaking and improvisation. It has been well-documented that she struggles to get her hands on the silverware when Serena, Vika and Maria are in town, but recently Radwanska has made a habit of coming up short even when the draw opens up nicely for her. Her Australian Open semi-final loss to Dominika Cibulkova is the prime example, yet in Doha she stuttered against Halep, letting go of a commanding first set lead. Radwanska will be favoured to come through her opening match against either a qualifier or Kaia Kanepi, but even if she gets past a determined Kerber in the quarter-finals, she’ll almost certainly find Serena waiting in the showpiece match.
Obviously, Williams will be the centre of attention this week. The 17-time Grand Slam champion is never more dangerous than when she is hungry, and the Australian Open disappointment will have whetted her appetite for more glory. She may start off rusty after a four-week absence from competitive play, but few players have what it takes to stare down even an off-form Serena. Career title number 59 awaits.
Predicted semi-finals: Serena def. Halep; Kerber def. Wozniacki
Champion: Serena Williams