x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Expectations low for shock results at this Dubai Tennis Championships

The continued dominance of a few usual suspects reinforces the perception, that beyond the few top-ranked players, the field is made up predominantly of also-rans.

Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland is the highest ranked player left in the field. Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters
Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland is the highest ranked player left in the field. Jumana El Heloueh / Reuters

In the end, the 175 IQ points did not need translating into match points.

Marion Bartoli, who once claimed that massive amount of brainpower, last night moved into the third round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships after her opponent and world No 1 Serena Williams became the latest player to pull out through injury.

The big guns, as ever it seems, dominate the sport even when they are not in action.

Tuesday's announcement by the world No 2 and Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka that she was withdrawing for the second year running seemed to have all but handed the title to Williams, who recently had reclaimed the No 1 spot from the Belarusian.

But now, with the top two seeds gone without having hit a shot, the field, with a few exceptions, suddenly looks less than stellar.

Often the early rounds of WTA events can come across as mere formalities, resembling those old wrestling mismatches where no-hopers with names like Bob Bradley are thrown into the ring against beasts like The Ultimate Warrior. It does not take a Bartoli to guess how it will all end.

It is not that women's tennis at the highest level is not competitive, as has often been the accusation in the past.

On the contrary, the physicality and heavy scheduling of the modern game is unrecognisable from previous decades and part of the reason why injuries, like the ones that sidelined Azarenka and Williams, are so common these days.

Yet the continued dominance of a few usual suspects reinforces the perception, rightly or wrongly, that beyond the few top-ranked players, the field is made up predominantly of also-rans.

Williams. Azarenka. Caroline Wozniacki. Success, and the media spotlight, seems to be reserved for the glamorous few.

But familiarity can breed apathy. So it is to some of the lesser lights that we often look for to provide upsets, inspiring tales or simply interesting background stories.

Tuesday provided one such tale. As the sun set and the floodlights came on, a few hundred fans, at most, wandered over to Dubai Aviation Club's No 1 Court even as, on Centre Court, Wosniacki was demolishing Lucie Safarova 6-2, 6-2 on the second day of the event.

The reason, it seemed, was curiosity at the presence of the qualifier Urzsula Radwanska, the 22-year-old Pole, and younger sister of the world No 4 Agnieszka.

The younger Radwanska had previously beaten her sister only once, 6-4, 6-3, in February 2009 here in Dubai.

But despite that win, and early promise that saw her compared to Justine Henin, there has yet to be a Williams-like sibling rivalry at the highest level.

Still, the crowd, many from Radwanska's native Poland, were intrigued sufficiently to catch a glimpse of her.

But despite a solid comeback in the second set, she lost to Jei Zheng 6-2, 2-6, 7-5. That first shock of this year's event would have to wait a little longer. Also on Tuesday, fate seemed to deal the world's 31st-ranked player a generous hand.

Spain's Carla Suarez Navarro had earlier in the week been knocked out by the Slovak Daniella Hantuchova, only to replace the departed Azarenka as a "lucky loser". (The title of sore loser, incidentally, surely goes to Hantuchova who was losing to Czech Petra Kvitova in straight sets just as Suarez Navarro was being reinstalled into the draw.)

Could this be the start of a fairy-tale run?

In retrospect, the Spaniard probably could have done without such "luck".

The reprieve was brief, Russia's Nadia Petrova thrashing her 6-1, 6-0 yesterday afternoon in a brutally one-sided contest.

The now twice-defeated world No 37 will at least have the extra paycheque that reaching the last 32 guarantees to console her as she nurses her dented pride.

Now, with Williams and Azarenka gone, the title is up for grabs. But do not expect any major upsets.

Agnieszka Radwanska, the highest ranked player left, will be the favourite to win.

The (alleged) genius that is Bartoli, meanwhile, will now face the former world No 1 Wozniacki, who yesterday followed up Tuesday's easy win by annihilating Jei 6-0, 6-1, the margin of the result proving yet again the gulf between the best and the rest.

The popular Wozniacki, who looks to be returning to top form after a difficult year or so, will certainly draw the crowds.

And no doubt, as more minnows depart, interest in the tournament will spike, such is the nature of all sporting competition.

For now, more in hope than expectation, we await that first, elusive giant-killing act.

akhaled@thenational.ae

twitter Follow us @SprtNationalUAE