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)
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.