It’s the 17th edition of the women’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and we finally have an Arab player fight her way through the qualifying rounds to earn a place in the main draw.
Tunisian Ons Jabeur has long been a beacon of hope for the Arab world on the WTA tour, ever since she won the Roland Garros girls’ title back in 2011, and the region has been anxiously waiting for her to leave her mark on the women’s circuit.
On Saturday, she qualified for the Dubai tournament and features in the main draw of the Premier 5 showpiece for the first time on Sunday.
Transitioning from juniors to the WTA has been challenging for the 22-year-old but so far this season, Jabeur has provided plenty of signs that she is finally ready to live up to her potential.
She has won 11 matches in 2017 – including qualifying rounds – and reached the quarter-finals in Taipei earlier this month where she held four match points against world No.13 Elina Svitolina to make the semis.
She was unable to convert any of them but showed the world, and most importantly herself, that she can play at that level.
Perhaps that match carries further meaning considering Jabeur and Svitolina faced off in the 2010 Roland Garros junior final with the latter gaining the upper hand.
Svitolina has come a long way since then and perhaps Jabeur is ready to catch up. Jabeur’s qualification in Dubai is significant in many ways.
While it is great for young Arab girls to come see stars of the WTA compete in the UAE, witnessing Jabeur is a whole other ball game. They’d be watching an Arab like them – someone who comes from a similar culture and shares the same values as them, pursue a career in tennis and show them that they too can follow suit.
Tunisian Selima Sfar, who is the only Arab woman in history to crack the top-100, served as an example for Jabeur, who in turn is doing the same for future generations.
But competing on Arab soil can amplify the impact Jabeur can have on youngsters from the region and the fact that she made into the main draw based on merit, not via a wildcard makes it even more impressive.
It was huge when Sfar made the quarters in Dubai back in 2001 and it could be just as impactful that Jabeur is in the draw on Sunday.
While Jabeur’s attacking slice-and-dice style is attractive and unique, it is her personality that can be her biggest asset when it comes to influencing Arab youth.
She is a popular figure in this part of the world, and one only needs to see her walking around the tennis club here to realise how great she is when interacting with fans.
Her humility comes across, which is a rare thing amongst many of the young talents emerging on both the men’s and women’s tours, and sooner or later, the WTA must realise how they can actually speak to a portion of the Arab population – estimated at 360 million – through someone like Jabeur.
While the North African still has a lot of work ahead of her in order to make the breakthrough she’s been dreaming about, the signs so far have been encouraging.
She got fitter thanks to a tough preseason, is getting more professional in her every move, has hired a coach she is comfortable with, and most importantly, is enjoying her tennis.
She says she is no longer focused on chasing points and money but is instead getting back to basics, loving the sport and the process behind it, just like during her junior days.
Here’s hoping that passion comes across to those watching her on Sunday on Court 1.
Sport360’s Reem Abulleil and Courtney Nguyen of WTA Insider analyse the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships draw and discuss the main talking points ahead of the tournament.
The Championships get underway on Sunday with 12 singles matches scheduled across three courts.
Who are you keen on watching this week in Dubai and who do you think will do well?
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships main draw action kicks off on Sunday with 12 singles matches on the schedule, which will serve as a teaser for what’s to come this week at the Aviation Club.
There have been 10 withdrawals from the tournament so far, with No6 seed Johanna Konta being the latest high-profile pull-out due to injury, but there is still plenty to look forward to.
Here’s what you need to know before the madness begins…
The draw is very lopsided
A quick glance at the draw will reveal that the bottom half is significantly tougher than the top one. No1 seed Angelique Kerber has Elena Vesnina, Dominika Cibulkova and Elina Svitolina as the top-eight seeds in her half as well as dangerous floaters like Caroline Garcia, Naomi Osaka and Roberta Vinci but still the opposite side is absolutely jam-packed.
There’s a ‘quarter of death’ that includes Garbine Muguruza, former champions Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki, St. Petersburg runner-up Yulia Putintseva and Russian teen Daria Kasatkina, who beat Kerber a few days ago in Doha, and last month in Sydney.
Also in that half is No2 seed Karolina Pliskova and Australian Open semi-finalist Coco Vandeweghe. Minefields left, right and centre.
Will Kerber regroup and go top?
The German can still dethrone Serena Williams and reclaim the No1 ranking if she wins the title in Dubai. Her record however in the Emirates is not very promising. Kerber has won just one match in four main draw appearances here.
The 29-year-old has started 2017 with a mediocre 4-4 win-loss record, compared to 13-3 within the same period last season. The promising signs are that her defeats this season have come against quality players and she is in the softer side of the draw in Dubai.
Teen talent in full force
Centre court ticket holders today must look no further than the wonderful Naomi Osaka. The Japanese world No.56 is making her tournament debut and has a power game that is a joy to watch. Her quirky personality is also very endearing.
Fellow 19-year-old Kasatkina is also a must-watch and her opener against Wozniacki is a brutal first round for both. Expect fireworks. Also keep an eye on Ana Konjuh, a quarter-finalist at the US Open last year, and 17-year-old American Cici Bellis. World No34 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia is an exciting 19-year-old, who has enjoyed success in the Gulf in the past, having reached the final in Doha last year.
Dubai field is stronger than last year
The reason the Dubai draw is bigger compared to 2016 and features five of the world’s top-10 is because it swaps the Premier 5 status with Doha each year and this season the Emirates has the higher status. More points and more money are on offer in Dubai, which means more is on the line.
There’s an Arab in the draw
Tunisian Ons Jabeur earned a place in the main draw by winning her two qualifying matches and will no doubt enjoy lots of support when she faces Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Court 1 on opening day.