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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Elina Svitolina arrives at Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships 'ready for the challenge' of being defending champion

Ukrainian top seed is getting used to having a target on her back after a 2017 season that yielded five titles.

Elina Svitolina returns to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to defend her title. Lukas Coch / EPA
Elina Svitolina returns to the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships to defend her title. Lukas Coch / EPA

A breakout 2017 means Elina Svitolina must get used to having that target on her back.

The Ukrainian won five times last season, more than any of her peers on the WTA Tour. The run began in Taipei in February, then continued a few weeks later at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. It carried through to the middle of the year, with victories in Istanbul, Rome and Toronto.

By September, Svitolina had climbed to No 3 in the world rankings, the position she holds currently. It was why she enters Dubai this week not only as defending champion, but as the event’s top seed, too. Theoretically, she is the player everyone else wants to beat.

To her credit, Svitolina seems pretty chilled about it. She kind of has to be. As she highlighted on Sunday, it is fast becoming a familiar feeling.

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“This year it’s going to be a couple times for me, coming to big tournaments as defending champion,” Svitolina said. “I'm going to have to get used to it.

“It’s definitely a different feeling for me. But it's also very interesting to see how I'm going to handle it. I'm ready for this challenge, definitely.”

Twelve months ago, the challenge was simply trying to perform even better in Dubai than she had previously. Svitolina had form at the Aviation Club, getting to the semi-finals in 2016. This time, she went a step further, defeating Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets in the final. She moved into the top 10 in the rankings, the first time for a Ukrainian female. From there, Svitolina hasn’t really looked back.

“It was actually the first tournament in which I went through probably the biggest year I’ve had,” she said. “Winning the tournament was a big push for me forward.”

Elina Svitolina beat Caroline Wozniacki in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship final in 2017. Tom Dulat / Getty Images
Elina Svitolina beat Caroline Wozniacki in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championship final in 2017. Tom Dulat / Getty Images

As she readily concedes, the difference between Svitolina then and Svitolina now is marked.

“Definitely more confident,” she said. “I won lots of tournaments, playing very solid last year. Of course, there would be bad days, but you have to accept them. Confidence is more because of the results, because of the matches that I won. It's just a part of my game, really.

"That's all the process of winning some tournaments: it brings you confidence that you cannot really lose after. That's the experience.”

Obviously, the experience has stood her in good stead. Svitolina has begun 2018 in similar form, winning last month in Brisbane - her 10th WTA title - and reaching the Australian Open quarter-finals. It matched her best performance to date at a grand slam. It suggests that 2017 was no fluke, but a foundation.

“Of course, to win a grand slam has always been my goal,” Svitolina said. "It’s going to be for the rest of my career.”

Serena Williams could well have something to say about that. The former world No 1 is for many the greatest woman to have played the sport, but she sat out Melbourne as she attempts to fine-tune her game following the birth of her daughter in September.

Williams returned to competitive action in last week's doubles at the Fed Cup alongside sister Venus, and she is scheduled to make her return to singles action at Indian Wells in March. The American has 23 grand slams already, yet the prominent question remains that, at age 36, can she been as dominant as she once was? Svitolina is pretty certain she can.

“Maybe not as strong, but different strong,” she said. “She definitely can come back to level she was. For sure, she's a great champion. It's going to be very interesting to see her coming back."

Right now, Svitolina is focused on coping with that target on her back. She heads a loaded top draw in Dubai, opening her defence in the second round against either Kiki Bertens or a qualifier. Expectations are high. But then, she has to get used to it.

“I don't look at it as a pressure because I’ve played well this year,” Svitolina said. “I know what I have to do to be ready to play well here, just that I have to go on court and be 100 per cent ready physically. Just be ready for everything, really.”