February 24, 2021

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Week 1 Previews: Abu Dhabi WTA missing many top names

Abu Dhabi

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It’s a credit to the WTA Tour that, in its quest to provide playing opportunities for its players, the tour put itself on the hook entirely for the entirety of the $565,530 US purse at the generically-named “Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open”.

But given there have been just two WTA events since the French Open in early October, and nothing for another three weeks afterwards, the top-100 players weren’t overly supportive.

Originally, only eight of the top had 20 signed on. While that would be impressive for a 500-level (formerly Premier) tournament in normal times, these are not normal times.

That dropped to seven after Belinda Bencic withdrew.

The tournament was put together on fairly late notice, after the Australian summer schedule was scuttled because of adjustments made necessary by the pandemic. But at least it has a world-class venue to play in, even if there will be no fans.

After the initial draw was made, No. 14 Amanda Anisimova pulled out due to illness.

Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi main draw

No. 259 squeezes into main draw

Also withdrawing: Svetlana Kuznetsova, Zheng Saisai, Caroline Garcia, Jelena Ostapenko, Danielle Collins, Patricia Tig, Katerina Siniakova and Alison Van Uytvanck.

Originally, the last one in was Kirsten Flipkens, ranked No. 86. As the qualifying begins Tuesday, the last player to squeeze into the main draw is … Ulrikke Eikeri, ranked No. 259.

Abu Dhabi
Jelena Ostapenko is one of nine players in the top 70 who withdrew before the start of the Abu Dhabi tournament.

One problem with the alternates list is that just about everyone between No. 103 and about No. 250 will be playing the Australian Open qualifying. That’s true even though the qualifying only begins on Sunday. Those lower-ranked players might well be eliminated early in Abu Dhabi (just an hour and a half’s drive away). But they’re not allowed to enter two events in a week.

Mona Barthel, ranked No. 228, did make the main draw because she’s already in the Australian Open main draw on a protected ranking.

Abu Dhabi qualifying not full

The qualifying pays the price for the conflict with the Australian Open quaifying with the second-tier players. And as a result, they were unable to fill the 32-player qualifying draw.

Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi qualifying draw

The last one in is a doubles specialist, Luisa Stefani of Brazil. Stefani, ranked No. 33 in doubles, is at No. 730 in singles and played just two singles matches all of 2020.

She’s not alone. Stefani is joined by Ena Shibahara (No. 23 in doubles, No. 537 in singles, one singles match in 2020 in Adelaide in January).

Also playing is Giuliana Olmos of Mexico (No. 61 in doubles, No. 475 in singles – two singles matches in 2020).

Nadiia Kichenok of Ukraine, No. 658 in singles, hasn’t played a singles match since Oct. 2019 and under “normal” rules, wouldn’t even have a ranking at all.

Lucie Hradecka, 35, is No. 32 in doubles and No. 495 in singles (although her career high of No. 41). She hasn’t played singles since the Doha qualifying last February, when she also entered the 500-level tournament’s draw because of available spots.

Carol Zhao finally back

On the plus side, Canadian Carol Zhao is finally returning to action in the qualifying.

The 25-year-old was out from Oct. 2018 to June 2019 with an elbow/forearm issue that has proven incredibly tricky to treat. She played through to September 2019, but was knocked out again by the arm.

And just when she was looking to return last March, the pandemic hit. Once tennis returned, even with her protected ranking of No. 295, it was exponentially more difficult to find playing opportunities.

Zhao’s first-round opponent will be No. 313 Mirjam Bjorklund of Sweden.

Bjorklund, as it happens, is the girlfriend of Zhao’s countryman Denis Shapovalov.

Leylah Fernandez is straight into the main draw. She meets Jasmine Paolini in the first round, with a potential second-round matchup against American Jennifer Brady.

Sharon Fichman (with Olmos) is in the doubles.

Coverage on Tennis Channel and WTA.TV

Unlike its counterpart in Antalya, Turkey, the Abu Dhabi tournament is taking place in a venue used to hosting high-level tennis events.

And so, the coverage, which begins Wednesday when the main draw begins, will be fairly extensive.

Abu Dhabi

TSN will not coverage of this tournament, as they only pick up what are now the “1000”- level events.