A slew of withdrawals have struck the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships women’s draw but the tournament still features a stellar line-up that includes six of the world’s top -10.
Each year, Dubai and Doha alternate the Premier 5 status and this season, it is the UAE that is hosting the lower tier event. A Premier-level tournament has a smaller draw – a 32 instead of a 64 in a Premier 5 – and offers fewer ranking points – 470 for the champion compared to 900 in a Premier 5.
Dubai organisers keep the prize money the same though whether their event is a Premier or a Premier 5.
There tend to be more withdrawals in Dubai every other year because players usually prioritise the Premier 5 event, which happens to be Doha this season.
Defending champion Elina Svitolina is the top seed in Dubai this week and braved some scorching weather to practice on centre court on Saturday with her hitting partner Andrew Bettles.
The draw ceremony was conducted on Saturday in the presence of player representatives Elise Mertens, Lucie Safarova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova and Kiki Bertens and it revealed some mouth-watering clashes.
Here are the main talking points regarding the Dubai event, which kicks off on Monday.
There was lots of excitement regarding the long-awaited return of Maria Sharapova to Dubai, where she has made just one previous appearance back in 2006. But the Russian withdrew due to pain in her forearms and several players followed suit including Madison Keys (illness), Simona Halep (right foot), Julia Goerges (hip), Ashleigh Barty (left toe), and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni (right shoulder).
Sharapova and Halep’s wildcards ended up going to young stars Catherine ‘CiCi’ Bellis and Naomi Osaka while the other two invites were given to French Open champion and world No. 6 Jelena Ostapenko, and British world No. 11 Johanna Konta.
The 18-year-old Bellis, ranked 48 in the world, stunned defending champion Karolina Pliskova in Doha last Thursday and had a strong showing in Dubai in 2017, defeating Agnieszka Radwanska en route to the quarter-finals. She is the youngest in this year’s draw.
Osaka, a 20-year-old from Japan ranked 51 in the world, is one of the most talented youngsters on tour and has a power game that has taken down the likes of Venus Williams and Angelique Kerber last season.
Konta, who was set to make her Dubai debut last year but pulled out with a foot injury, is ready to make her first appearance in the Emirates.
THE FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH
The stacked 32-draw in Dubai always features some must-see first rounds and this year is no different.
Here are some brutal openers expected next week:
Angelique Kerber  v Barbora Strycova
Johanna Konta  v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova
Daria Kasatkina v Agnieszka Radwanska
Caroline Garcia  v Lucie Safarova
Kristina Mladenovic  v Naomi Osaka
Petra Kvitova v Anett Kontaveit
CiCi Bellis v Elise Mertens
THE SITE IMPROVEMENTS
Tournament director Salah Tahlak revealed some upgrades that have been introduced to the venue including the addition of Hawk-Eye to Court No. 1. A spider cam has also been added to Centre Court.
“It was very important to have Hawk-Eye on Court No. 1. This year both the ATP and WTA have mandated that the second court, which in our case is Court No. 1, should be has good as Centre Court. We always try to comply with these rules, so that’s going to be great,” said Tahlak on Saturday.
“We also added some cosmetics we did, Court No. 3 is completely brand new. The spider cam on Centre Court will give the global audience difference views and angles, so that’s nice.”
SVITOLINA’S TOUGH TASK
If the Ukrainian plans on defending her Dubai title, she will have to take down some huge scalps who have all landed in a loaded top half of the draw. Svitolina will open her campaign against either a qualifier or Kiki Bertens before a potential quarter-final against the likes of Kvitova, Osaka or Mladenovic. In the semis, she could get either Kerber or Karolina Pliskova before a possible final against the likes of Garbine Muguruza, Garcia, Ostapenko or Konta.
THE PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)
Svitolina  v Mladenovic 
Pliskova  v Kerber 
Konta  v Ostapenko 
Garcia  v Muguruza 
A loaded qualifying draw for the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships promises to deliver some fierce competition starting Saturday at the Aviation Club.
With eight of the world’s top-10 players all competing in Dubai next week, and the tournament having a Premier-level, not Premier 5, status this year, only 28 players get to make it into the main draw meaning the cut-off ranking for entry is incredibly high.
Dubai and Doha alternate the Premier 5 status each season and this year, the UAE gets the lower tier event – featuring a smaller draw and less ranking points on offer – but the stacked field ensures it’ll be a high-quality affair nonetheless.
Madison Keys, Ashleigh Barty and Mirjana Lucic-Baroni have all pulled out of Dubai (so did wildcard Maria Sharapova), which made way for Ekaterina Makarova, Anett Kontaveit and Elise Mertens to move into the main draw.
The qualifying action taking place over the next three days before main draw matches begin on Monday will see a host of talented players fight for tournament spots. Entry is free and matches begin at 10:30am.
Here are three players to watch in the Dubai qualifying rounds.
The Arab No. 1 made it through qualifying last year then pulled off a surprise, upsetting 14th-seeded Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first round before falling to Wang Qiang.
Last May, the Tunisian became the first Arab woman to reach the third round of a Grand Slam in singles when she claimed her first top-10 victory by shocking Dominika Cibulkova at the French Open.
With a deft touch that produces tantalising drop shots and a fun all-round game, the 112th-ranked Jabeur will be showcasing her talents in qualifying on Saturday.
She is searching for a first victory in 2018 and is coming off an opening round loss in Doha. The 23-year-old Jabeur will face Oman’s Fatma Al Nabhani in her Dubai qualifying opener.
The Japanese power-hitter is a real treat both on and off the court. Ranked 51 in the world, Osaka reached the Australian Open fourth round last month and is looking to make her second Dubai main draw appearance (lost in round two in 2017). The 20-year-old’s fiery groundstrokes can cause some real damage on the fast Dubai courts. She opens her qualifying campaign against fellow Japanese Nao Hibino.
— NaomiOsaka大坂なおみ (@Naomi_Osaka_) February 15, 2018
CARLA SUAREZ NAVARRO
Suarez Navarro is the top seed in the qualifying draw and opens against China’s Zhu Lin. The two-time Dubai quarter-finalist is making her way back up the rankings and has returned to the top-30 after reaching the last-eight at the Australian Open last month. The Spaniard was ranked No. 6 in the world two years ago and owns two WTA titles from 10 finals reached throughout her career. If you’re a fan of the one-handed backhand, then make sure you turn up for Suarez Navarro’s matches.
Maria Sharapova‘s long-awaited return to Dubai will no longer happen this month as the Russian ex-world No. 1 announced her withdrawal from the tournament.
Sharapova’s last — and only — appearance at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships was in 2006, and she had accepted a wildcard into next week’s event.
But the five-time Grand Slam champion has pulled out citing injury (reportedly feeling pain in her forearms) and it is yet to be determined who will be taking her wildcard instead.
Sharapova lost her opener in Doha last Monday to Monica Niculescu in three sets and is currently ranked No. 41 in the world. She is 21-10 win-loss since she returned from her doping ban last April.
American world No. 14 Madison Keys, who was meant to make her Dubai debut next week, has also withdrawn due to illness.
Keys, last year’s US Open runner-up, lost her Doha second round to Catherine ‘CiCi’ Bellis 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 on Wednesday.
“Unfortunately both Maria Sharapova and Madison Keys have regretfully had to withdraw from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships due to injury and illness,” said tournament director Salah Tahlak.
“We are sorry that neither Maria nor Madison will be able to play in Dubai, but we still have one of the strongest fields ever assembled for the WTA event. Maria said that she is very sorry she cannot be here and hopes to come back next year. We wish her and Madison a speedy recovery.”
The WTA tournament at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships begins on Monday February 19 and concludes on Saturday February 24, with the ATP event kicking off on Monday February 26.
World No. 2 Simona Halep will headline the field along with defending champion, world No. 3 Elina Svitolina and reigning Wimbledon champion, world No. 4 Garbine Muguruza.