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 
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.