x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Youth will be served at women’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

With stars like Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova absent, the Dubai Tennis Championship will give a platform to Sloane Stephens and Simona Halep, and a glimpse into the future of women’s tennis.

Simona Halep is ranked No 10 in the world. Srdjan Stevanovic / Getty Images
Simona Halep is ranked No 10 in the world. Srdjan Stevanovic / Getty Images

It is going to be an interesting women’s tournament at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

The world No 1 and 17-time grand slam champion Serena Williams will not play, nor will No 2 Victoria Azarenka. The first is recuperating from a back injury, while the second, who left the organisers in the lurch the last two years with late withdrawals, is nursing a foot injury.

Maria Sharapova and the new Australian Open champion Li Na – the two highest earners in women’s tennis and multiple grand slam champions – are also not on the list for the US$2 million tournament, which starts on Monday. Dominika Cibulkova, the surprise finalists at the Australian Open, will not be making the trip, either.

Still, barring late withdrawals, six of the world top 16 will be here among a field that includes three grand slam winners: Ana Ivanovic (2008 French Open), Samantha Stosur (2011 US Open) and Petra Kvitova (2011 Wimbledon), the defending Dubai champion. Former world No 1s Caroline Wozniacki and Jelena Jankovic are on the list as well, and so is world No 4 Agnieszka Radwanska.

Tennis pundits, however, will be more interested in the performance of two possible stars of WTA’s “Generation Next” – the 20-year-old American Sloane Stephens and the 22-year-old Simona Halep of Romania.

Halep, voted WTA’s Most Improved Player last year when she won six titles, reached the last eight of the Australian Open before losing to Cibulkova. Starting 2013 as No 47 and without a single title, she is ranked a career-high No 10 and getting used to the extra pressure.

“It was an incredible period for me,” Halep said. “I played really good. I was more aggressive, more relaxed on court. I just wanted to take the pleasure of every point and to fight for every point. Now it’s difficult, more pressure and, you know, you [others] want every time to win, to beat the top-10 players.”

Stephens, world No 18, is still looking for her first title after grabbing the spotlight with her stunning win over Williams at the 2013 Australian Open. The American obviously enjoys the pressure of the grand slams, but as she said, “I’m looking forward to obviously doing better in the events I didn’t do well in last year.”

And that includes Dubai, where she lost in the first round to Romanian Sorana Cirstea.

The absence of several big guns, then, will not greatly diminish the contest, and could make it even more engrossing, especially with the addition of two-time champion Venus Williams as a wild card. Struggling with health issues in recent times, this could well be the 33 year old’s last Dubai visit and she’ll hope to sign off in style. .

Will she be able to do that? Can the old guard maintain their stranglehold in women’s tennis, or will 2014 see the birth of a new order? Dubai should provide a few indications next week.

arizvi@thenational.ae