Ons Jabeur was happy to finally get the monkey off her back and claim her first victory of the 2018 season by defeating Fatma Al Nabhani to reach the second round of qualifying at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Saturday.
Jabeur fought past her Omani opponent 6-7 (5), 6-0, 6-2 in an all-Arab clash that lasted one hour and 56 minutes in hot conditions at the Aviation Club to set up a qualifying second round against Ukraine’s Lesia Tsurenko.
The Tunisian, who made her top-100 debut last year thanks to a career-best season that saw her become the first Arab woman to make the third round at a Grand Slam in singles, was riding a seven match-losing streak before her win over Al Nabhani.
“There are two sides to the story. The draws were tough, from the start of the season I was facing seeded players – except for Sydney (lost to Sara Tomic in qualifying) which is a match I’d like to forget, we don’t have to talk about it – and it’s been difficult. My confidence was a bit shaken. I tried to get it back,” Jabeur told Sport360 on Saturday in Dubai.
“Today was a good match, besides the first set, that doesn’t count,” she added with a smile. “But I was stressed. I hadn’t won a match in a long time. Today I really wanted to win, I wasn’t going to walk off the court without getting that win.”
The 23-year-old had switched coaches in the offseason, parting ways with Mislav Hizak and joining forces with Diego Veronelli, Heather Watson’s former coach.
Jabeur had to split with Veronelli because of logistical reasons that were preventing him from traveling and has now started working with Peng Shuai’s ex-coach Bertrand Perret. Dubai is their first week together.
Asked if she was feeling the pressure of having to back up her strong 2017, Jabeur said: “If you think about the number of points you’re defending then that’s a very bad idea. You have to just think one match at a time.
“My concern was my level, I changed my coach because I wanted to improve my level. Now things are going well and with some patience, I know what I’m capable of, and hopefully I’ll be able to make the changes I wanted to my game in 2018.”
Other winners in Dubai qualifying on Saturday include Greece’s Maria Sakkari who battled for two and a half hours before overcoming China’s Wang Yafan.
Former US Open champion Sam Stosur India’s world No. 253 Ankita Raina 6-4, 6-4 while 2016 Dubai champion Sara Errani, who served a two-month doping suspension last year, hammered Japan’s Shuko Aoyama 6-1, 6-0.
Sunday’s qualifying order of play:
Court No. 1 – 10:30
Hsieh Su-Wei (TPE) v Maria Sakkari (GRE)
Ons Jabeur (TUN) v Lesia Tsurenko (UKR)
Sam Stosur (AUS) v Christina McHale (USA)
Court No. 2 – 10:30
Wang Qiang (CHN) v Danka Kovinic (MNE)
Sara Errani (ITA) v Bernarda Pera (USA)
Court No. 3 – 10:30
Sofya Zhuk (RUS) v Camila Giorgi (ITA)
Veronika Kudermetova (RUS) v Zarina Diyas (KAZ)
Aryna Sabalenka (BLR) v Miyu Kato (JPN)
Belgium’s Elise Mertens is looking to keep her dream season going this upcoming week in Dubai following her surprise run to the Australian Open semi-finals last month.
The 22-year-old was ranked No. 80 12 months ago when she was competing at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Today, she is No. 20 in the world with an impressive 11-3 win-loss record for the season so far.
“It’s been an amazing season. A little unexpected, top-20 for the first time. Last year I ended it ranked 36 so it’s already a big thing but I hope I can still improve, level-wise, ranking-wise so we’ll see where it ends,” Mertens told Sport360 at the draw ceremony on Saturday.
Mertens started her year by winning 10 matches in a row, picking up the title in Hobart before making it to the Australian Open last-four, where she fell to Caroline Wozniacki, the eventual champion.
The prize money she has collected over the past six weeks amounts to 50 per cent of her entire career earnings and her 2018 results have placed her at No. 4 in the Porsche Race to Singapore standings.
With her elevated ranking and status, Mertens admits she has had to make some adjustments.
“I think both, physically you have to be really well, really prepared, you have to work every day. But also mentally believe in yourself that you can do it because of course you have to play at your level in every match, so it’s difficult, but if you do it every week then you get used to it,” she said.
Reflecting on her stunning run in Melbourne, she added: “It was great, surprising, well it was the first time I’ve been in the main draw (in Melbourne). I played the French Open and reached the third round last year and I was really happy about that but no, I just tried to stay focused every match, every round.”
Mertens faces 18-year-old American wildcard Catherine ‘CiCi’ Bellis in her opening round in Dubai. Bellis is coming off a big upset in Doha this week, where she defeated defending champion Karolina Pliskova, and could prove a tricky opponent for Mertens.
“I never played her before so it’s going to be a different match. But she’s a really great player, she’s still young but she’s already competing at this high level so it’s going to be an interesting match,” said the Belgian of Bellis.
Meanwhile, Czech lefty Lucie Safarova is hoping to continue her climb back up the rankings after struggling with illnesses and injuries over the past two years.
The former top-tenner reached the French Open final in 2015 but a stream of bad luck then took over as she suffered from a mysterious bacterial infection that wreaked havoc with the rest of her season.
Last year, a wrist problem forced her to end her 2017 prematurely but she has shown some great form so far this season, even if she’s still waiting on that big result to catapult her back into the top-10 (she is now ranked 31).
“I’m healthy, that’s the most important thing because I was struggling with a lot of injuries at the end of last year,” said the 31-year-old Safarova.
“I had a really good start actually this year, in Sydney I lost from a match point against Angie Kerber, who is playing really well now. I had a good run in Melbourne where I won two matches then I lost a tough, close match against Karolina Pliskova. I’m happy about my performances so far and I’m excited for this event.”
Safarova has a daunting first round in Dubai, against No. 5 seed Caroline Garcia. They only met once before, in Fed Cup in 2015, with Safarova taking the win in three sets.
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