The Qatar Total Open should have been the most competitive tournament since the Australian Open. Alas, the first WTA Premier 5 event of the 2014 season has been hit by a series of high-profile withdrawals. Serena Williams pulled out with a back injury, and Victoria Azarenka with a sore foot. Maria Sharapova has opted to skip the Middle East swing entirely in order to play a starring role at the Sochi Olympics.
Check out the Full Draw Here: WTA Qatar Open 2014 Draw
With the “Big Three” out of the picture, the focus in Doha shifts to the Melbourne champion, Li Na. Can the new world number two maintain her outstanding form, or will she slump as she did after capturing her maiden Grand Slam title at the French Open 2011? As the top seed, Li will receive a bye into the second round, where she could meet the woman she beat in that Roland Garros showpiece. Francesca Schiavone is still plugging away on the tour, but the wins are getting harder to come by, and the 33-year-old Italian has lost all four of the matches she’s played in 2014. Should that trend continue, Li will play her opener against Magdalena Rybarikova, a surprise winner in their only previous meeting.
With a 56-player draw, the blockbuster matches could come early and fast in Doha, and one of the most intriguing would be Li’s slated third round clash with Sloane Stephens. The pressure is on for the young American to follow up her breakthrough 2013 with a strong sophomore, but is she steady and confident enough to knock off Li in their first ever encounter?
Another star of the Australian Open lurks in the top quarter of the Doha draw: Ana Ivanovic. Few predicted the Serb would take down Serena in Melbourne – all too often in recent years, she has threatened more than she has delivered. But Ivanovic produced some stunning hitting at the latter stages of that contest, proving that, even though she might not be the same player who topped the rankings in 2008, she is still one of the world’s best when she zones. Ivanovic opens against Daniela Hantuchova, who will surely be fatigued after her Fed Cup exploits this weekend; in the second round she will take on Elina Svitolina, the promising youngster from Ukraine, or Czech veteran Klara Zakopalova. Ivanovic has never lost to either of those women, but in the third round she is almost certain to meet a player who has bested her twice on hard courts, Angelique Kerber. The German, putting herself under less pressure these days, looks to be in solid form, and will make Ivanovic work for every point.
Moving onto the second quarter of the Qatar draw, we find the eternal enigma, Petra Kvitova. It feels like a long time since the Czech stunned the world by winning Wimbledon 2011 and finishing that year within a whisker of the number one ranking. In the interim years she has moved up and down the top ten, battling illness, injury and loss of confidence. A new fitness regimen and extensive medical tests towards the end of 2013 suggested that she would begin 2014 with a bang; instead, the world number six went 2-2 in Australia and pulled out of the Paris Indoors and the Fed Cup. That bodes well for Venus Williams, who could meet Kvitova in the second round should she get past a qualifier in round one. The elder Williams sister may be dealing with her own health issues, but she is also a savvy opportunist and knows she has the game to rattle a mis-firing Petra.
The winner of that must-see battle would face a tough but winnable last 16 clash with either Lucie Safarova or Kirsten Flipkens, after which could come a showdown with fifth seed Jelena Jankovic or Australian Open finalist Dominika Cibulkova. Cibulkova, notoriously, blows hot and cold, and arriving in Doha just hours after playing for the Slovak Republic increases the chances of an early round upset. Jankovic hasn’t set the tennis scene alight in 2014 so far, but if the experienced Serb can live up to her seeding she would no doubt bring her A game to a centre stage, high stakes quarter-final battle with Williams or Kvitova.
The third section of the draw is full of solid performers and perennial dark horses. Kaia Kanepi, Flavia Pennetta, Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Roberta Vinci have earned some notable scalps over the years and should never be written off, while Annika Beck is one of the tour’s most promising teenagers. But most eyes will be on the WTA’s newest superstar, Eugenie Bouchard. Seeded 15th in Doha after her superb run to the semi-finals in Melbourne, the Canadian will be keen to cement her status as an elite player. The “Genie Army” might be concerned at the quick turnaround post-Fed Cup, but if the 19-year-old can get past Mattek-Sands she will have a great chance to go deep – the highest seeds in this quarter, Sara Errani and Simona Halep, are far from unbeatable. Errani was a runner-up in Paris, but didn’t face any top 20 players there. Halep, although an Australian Open quarter-finalist and the newest member of the top ten, fell at the first hurdle in Paris and looked vulnerable in Fed Cup action a few days ago.
Undoubtedly the busiest woman in the top five, Agnieszka Radwanska will travel to Doha straight from Boras, where Poland took on Sweden. The world number four won many new fans after dismantling Azarenka down under, and is one of the favourites to scoop the Qatar Open title. She will take on either a qualifier or Sorana Cristea in the second round – Radwanska has a 4-2 winning record over the Romanian – and in round three could meet 13th seed Carla Suarez Navarro or Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. The Pole won’t be fazed by Navarro, who she has beaten twice, but her recent bouts with the hard-hitting Pavlyuchenkova have been draining affairs that required all of her famous guile and smarts.
The biggest names bidding for the role of Radwanska’s quarter-final foe are Caroline Wozniacki and Sam Stosur. Wozniacki, with new coach Michael Mortensen in tow, is attempting to rebound from a disappointing Australian Open and could face a tough second round match with Andrea Petkovic, a star of Germany’s Fed Cup team at the weekend. Stosur, who won two matches for her country against Russia, will play Marina Erakovic in round one, followed by either Jana Cepelova or Kristina Mladenovic. Wozniacki and Stosur stand at 3-3 in their head-to-head and almost always provide excellent entertainment when they face off, but while the Dane has lost her three most recent encounters with Radwanska, Stosur has beaten her three times out of four.
Predicted semi-finals: Li def. Jankovic; Radwanska def. Bouchard
The Qatar Total Open may be lacking some star power, but there should be no shortage of memorable matches, with 16 of the world’s top 20 in action. Can Li keep her foot on the pedal and live up to her top billing? Can Radwanska capitalise on a Serena-, Vika- and Sharapova-less field, as she failed to do in Melbourne? Neither woman has an easy route to the showpiece, but we could hardly hope for a better final. One of the most evenly-contested elite rivalries in the sport – Li currently leads it 6-5 – is a brilliant contrast in styles and temperaments, a jovial big hitter versus a poker-faced artist.