Greek youngster Maria Sakkari has fought for more than four hours in scorching Dubai weather to make it through to the third and final round of qualifying, with battling wins over Wang Yafan and Hsieh Su-Wei.
The 22-year-old had posted her first win of the season on Saturday against Wang – a two hour and 29 minute affair – before overcoming Hsieh on Sunday 7-5, 7-5 in one hour and 37 minutes.
Sakkari, ranked No. 60 in the world, will take on ex-US Open champion Sam Stosur on Monday looking to earn a place in the Dubai main draw.
“It’s always tough to play qualies especially in these kind of tournaments, they are so strong, half of the players could be in the main draw in other tournaments. It’s always tough but it’s always good for your confidence,” said the Athens native.
On how she got through her gruelling three-setter against Wang, she added: “Fight and believe in yourself that you can do it. It was my first win of the year so it was quite tough and important so I’m happy that I went through that yesterday and today.”
Sakkari is the only player from Greece ranked in the WTA top 180 and leads just six women from her country who have a world ranking.
On the men’s tour, Greek Next Gen star Stefanos Tsitsipas – a former junior No. 1 – is now ranked 82 in the world and together with Sakkari, they are catching the attention of many people back home.
“The sport is growing because of us and it’s really good that we can help on that. We are both happy and we hope we can grow it more,” said Sakkari, who is coached by former Australian Open champion Thomas Johansson.
“We feel proud, because Greeks are patriotic, it’s very important for us and it’s very nice that we can represent our country but on the other hand it’s quite sad that we’re just two players. Hopefully more will come.”
Sakkari spent some time during her offseason last December training in Dubai and admits the hot conditions are quite familiar to her.
“I am used to it. It feels like home, that’s what I was saying when we were flying from Doha to here ‘it’s good to be home’. It’s great, here they have the best conditions to practice, especially at that time of the year when it’s freezing in Europe. We really liked it and we will come back for sure,” she said.
Meanwhile, Tunisian Ons Jabeur fell in her second round of qualifying 6-3, 6-3 to Ukrainian Lesia Tsurenko while 2016 Dubai champion Sara Errani advanced to the final round 6-4, 6-4 over American Bernarda Pera. Errani faces Belarusian Aryna Sabalenko on Monday for a spot in the main draw. Italian Camila Giorgi sustained a thigh injury and was forced to retire after taking the opening set 6-4 off of Russian Sofya Zhuk.
A year ago, Elina Svitolina came to Dubai as a five-time title winner on the WTA tour, ranked No. 13 in the world.
Her quintet of trophies were all won at International-level tournaments – the lowest tier on the WTA circuit – and she was searching for that one big result that would officially announce her arrival to the big leagues.
A week later, she eased by Caroline Wozniacki in straight sets to claim the Premier 5-level Dubai crown and make her top-10 debut.
There was no stopping her from that point onwards. Svitolina went on to win two more Premier 5s in Rome and Toronto, and qualified for the year-end WTA Finals for the first time. She ended 2017 ranked No. 6 in the world.
This week in Dubai, Svitolina has a target on her back not just as the defending champion but as the tournament’s top seed.
“This year going to be a couple times for me, coming to big tournaments as defending champion. I’m going to have to get used to it,” Svitolina told reporters at the Jumeirah Creekside hotel in Dubai on Sunday.
“Different feeling definitely for me. But, yeah, for me it’s also very interesting to see how I’m going to handle it. Yeah, I’m ready for this challenge definitely.
“I don’t look at it as a pressure because I played well this year. I know what I have to do to be ready to, yeah, play well here. Yeah, just that I have to go on court and be 100 per cent physically, yeah, just be ready for everything really.”
— Elina Svitolina (@ElinaSvitolina) January 29, 2018
The Ukrainian owns a solid 10-2 win-loss record in 2018 that includes a title run in Brisbane and a quarter-finals showing at the Australian Open.
The 23-year-old is currently ranked No. 3 and is No. 5 in the 2018 Porsche Race to Singapore standings.
Svitolina highlights her consistency as the area in which she has improved the most and while she is yet to make it past the quarter-finals at a major, she is confident and pleased with her progress so far.
With the likes of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, and Victoria Azarenka taking time away from the game for various reasons, Svitolina is one of the younger players to rise through the ranks and solidify her place at the top.
“I think the game changed, but also everyone who is top-10 are quite solid and consistent with their game. That’s why it’s, like, now kind of equal. Everyone is, yeah, strong and ready to compete each week,” explains Svitolina.
Williams, who had her first child, Olympia, last September made her first competitive appearance in 13 months last week in Fed Cup, playing doubles for USA against Netherlands. The 23-time Grand Slam champion will return to the tour for the first time since January 2017 next month at Indian Wells.
The 36-year-old Williams will be unranked but will have a special ranking of No. 1 which she can use to enter as many as eight tournaments.
Does Svitolina see the American star coming back as strong as she was in the past?
“I think maybe not as strong, but different strong. She definitely can come back to level she was. But I’m sure that she will be very, very strong again. I’m not sure it’s going to be, like, the same,” said Svitolina, who is due to compete in a Tie Break Tens exhibition event in New York on March 5 alongside Williams and others.
“For sure, she’s a great champion. She has unbelievable experience, unbelievable game for the tennis. Very unique. It’s going to be very interesting to see her coming back. Hopefully, you know, I can play against her. I’m going to have a chance to play actually in New York.”
Svitolina has a bye in the opening round in Dubai and could face either a qualifier or Kiki Bertens in round two.
Main draw action begins on Monday with the final taking place on Saturday February 24.
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)