Dubai Duty Free Tennis: Elina Svitolina's tough path and other draw talking points

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Back for more: Elina Svitolina.

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.

THE ABSENTEES

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).

THE WILDCARDS

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 [6] v Barbora Strycova

Johanna Konta [7] v Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova

Daria Kasatkina v Agnieszka Radwanska

Caroline Garcia [5] v Lucie Safarova

Kristina Mladenovic [8] 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 [1] v Mladenovic [8]

Pliskova [3] v Kerber [6]

Konta [7] v Ostapenko [4]

Garcia [5] v Muguruza [2]

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