Kim Clijsters to face Kiki Bertens in her comeback match while former champions Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic face blockbuster first-round clashes as well: We break down the 2020 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships draw.
WTA Dubai Championships tennis is live from 17-22 February with play starting around 10.30am local/6.30am GMT
WTA Dubai International fast facts:
Location: Dubai, United Arab Emirates
Venue: Aviation Club Tennis Centre
Surface: Hard (outdoors)
Financial commitment: $2,828,000
Defending champion: Belinda Bencic
Projected quarterfinal: Simona Halep (1) vs Aryna Sabalenka (7) (2-1)
Sabalenka fairly blasted Halep off the court in their most recent encounter, which came in Adelaide at the start of the season, and it would be interesting to see if the Belarusian could do it again in Dubai – but there are a few hurdles in the way before that projected quarterfinal comes to pass.
With a first-round bye, Halep’s path is smoother, but she is still in for a tough second round against either Alison Riske or Ons Jabeur, both of whom are playing some of the best tennis of their career at the moment. Halep is 3-0 vs Riske and although she lost her only previous encounter with Jabeur, that was a retirement at 1-6 down when she was struggling with her back injury at the end of 2018. But Jabeur does come in at a career-high ranking of world no. 45 after her brilliant run to the Australian Open quarterfinals.
Things are more difficult for Sabalenka, who has had a mixed start to the season (unsurprisingly given the death of her father during the off-season). The Belarusian faces Maria Sakkari in the first round – a tough turnaround for Sakkari, who is in the semifinals in St Petersburg at the time of writing, but a dogged and in-form opponent – and either frequent doubles partner Elise Mertens or Wang Qiang in the second round. It looks like too much for Sabalenka.
Semifinalist: Halep (11/2 @ Ladbrokes to win the tournament)
Projected quarterfinal: Elina Svitolina (3) vs Kiki Bertens (6) (2-2)
The big news in this quarter is, of course, the return of Kim Clijsters, who will be playing her first match since the US Open in 2012 against world no. 8 Kiki Bertens.
It’s actually not such a bad draw for Clijsters, because Bertens is in the semifinals of the St Petersburg Ladies Trophy at the time of writing and will have to make a tight turnaround and a big transition to different conditions in Dubai, although the mind boggles at the prospect of the four-time Grand Slam champion beating a top-10 player after eight years in retirement.
The winner of that one will face Dayana Yastremska, the super-talented Ukrainian who already made the Adelaide final in 2020, or a qualifier (and with an incredibly stacked qualifying draw, that’s not an unimpressive prospect).
Only the return of Clijsters could eclipse the other tremendous first-round match in this quarter, which will see Svitolina taking on Australian Open finalist Garbine Muguruza after the latter took a wildcard into Dubai. Svitolina leads the head-to-head with Muguruza 6-5, but got just three games when they met in Melbourne; the Ukrainian has a stellar 16-3 record in Dubai, and won 12 matches in a row there when she won the titles in 2017-18 and made the semifinals in 2019, but she suffered a shock defeat to world no. 84 Nao Hibino in Hua Hin this week. Muguruza is a two-time semifinalist in Dubai – can she back up her resurgent run to the Australian Open final?
Last year’s French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova, newly back from a wrist injury, or Anastasija Sevastova, who is struggling a bit for form but just snapped a five-match losing streak by beating Serena Williams in Fed Cup, awaits the winner of this first-round tussle. Both will be much more problematic for Muguruza than Svitolina. It’s a crazily stacked quarter, but on a good history in Dubai alone, I’m going for Svitolina.
Semifinalist: Svitolina (12/1 @ Ladbrokes to win the tournament)
Projected quarterfinal: Petra Martic (8) vs Belinda Bencic (4) (1-0)
Defending champion Bencic returns to Dubai a year after that spectacular run to the title, beating four top-10 players along the way, as a top-10 player herself and at a career-high world no. 4 in the rankings.
Bencic is 6-5 so far in 2020, and has suffered some surprising defeats, to Anna Blinkova in Shenzhen and Leylah Annie Fernandez during Fed Cup as well, and most recently went out to Maria Sakkari in the second round in St Petersburg. She opens against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who looked super in a run to the Australian Open quarterfinals but traditionally struggles for consistency; nevertheless, although Bencic has won the last three against Pavlyuchenkova, the Russian won their only meeting on outdoor hard courts. Pavlyuchenkova is on a seven-match losing streak in Dubai, however.
Winning that one could give Bencic a shot at avenging her 0-6, 1-6 shellacking at the hands of Anett Kontaveit at the Australian Open but Kontaveit looks like she might be on dangerously good form – she beat Elina Svitolina in Fed Cup in the wake of her quarterfinal run in Melbourne.
At the top of this section, eighth seed Petra Martic – who is 2-3 so far in 2020 – starts against a qualifier, with Amanda Anisimova or Barbora Strycova in the second round. Strycova is a former finalist in Dubai but has won only two of her last eight matches; I like Anisimova’s chances to come through to the quarterfinals, where she might well meet Kontaveit.
Semifinal: Kontaveit (33/1 @ Ladbrokes to win the tournament)
Projected quarterfinal: Sofia Kenin (5) vs Karolina Pliskova (2) (0-4)
After a busy Fed Cup weekend, where she had her winning streak snapped by Jelena Ostapenko, Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin plays her first WTA Tour event as a top-10 player – and has rather a rough welcome back to the tour, in the shape of first-round opponent Elena Rybakina.
Rybakina is on incredible form, compiling a 15-2 record so far in 2020 and reaching three finals, most recently in St Petersburg where at the time of writing she just triumphed over Sakkari in the semifinals. The Kazakh will, however, have to make a pretty quick turnaround to reach Dubai and might struggle to be ready to compete, physically. She is a tremendous young player, regardless, so this has ‘potential upset’ written all over it.
Wimbledon quarterfinalist Karolina Muchova or a qualifier (as aforementioned, qualifiers are going to be incredibly dangerous this week) awaits in the second round.
Second seed Karolina Pliskova, meanwhile, is back on the ground she traditionally flourishes on – that is, the regular WTA Tour. A Dubai finalist in 2015, Pliskova hasn’t had a ton of success at the event since, but she already has a Premier title under her belt for 2020, not to mention a perfect record against Kenin. Much will depend on which qualifiers are placed in her path, one of whom will be her second-round opponent, but this should be a solid semifinal berth for the Czech.
Semifinalist: Pliskova (6/1 @ Ladbrokes to win the tournament)
Halep d. Svitolina
Kontaveit d. Pliskova
Halep d. Kontaveit