DUBAI, UAE -- Reigning Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka returns to competition this week at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, a Premier 5 event, where she is set to play her first WTA event as a World No.1. Click here for the full draw.
Top Eight Seeds: No.1 Naomi Osaka, No.2 Petra Kvitova, No.3 Simona Halep, No.4 Karolina Pliskova, No.5 Angelique Kerber, No.6 Elina Svitolina, No.7 Kiki Bertens, No.8 Aryna Sabalenka.
Top half: Osaka, Halep, Svitolina, Sabalenka
Bottom half: Kvitova, Pliskova, Kerber, Bertens
Projected quarterfinals: Osaka-Svitolina, Halep-Sabalenka, Kerber-Pliskova, Bertens-Kvitova.
Last year's final: Elina Svitolina d. Daria Kasatkina 6-4, 6-0.
Naomi Osaka returns to action.
The World No.1 is set to play her first tournament as the top seed for the first time in her career. Of course, the big news surrounding Osaka coming into Dubai is her recent split with coach Sascha Bajin, which she announced last week.
Osaka's meteoric rise through the rankings - 12 months ago she was just inside the Top 50 at No.48 - means the first-time milestones have come fast and furious, and all eyes will be on the 21-year-old to see how she handles the pressure of being the new World No.1, especially without a full-time coach at her side.
All Top 8 seeds receive a bye into the second round. Osaka will open her tournament against either Kristina Mladenovic, who she defeated 6-2, 6-2 in the first round here last year, or wildcard Fatma Al Nabhani. The first seed she could face is either Anett Kontaveit in the Round of 16 or Elina Svitolina or Garbiñe Muguruza in the quarterfinals.
Elina Svitolina tries for the treble.
No one has ever won Dubai back-to-back-to-back, but No.7 seed Svitolina is up for the challenge. The two-time defending champion is already one of only two women to win back-to-back Dubai titles (Justine Henin and Venus Williams also accomplished the feat), and this week the Ukrainian is looking to start her own treble club of one.
A semifinalist in Doha last week, Svitolina had a 4-1 lead on Halep before the Romanian stormed back to win five straight games to seal the comeback. Svitolina will have to put that loss behind her quickly, as her draw to a third title is a tough one. She opens against either St. Petersburg finalist Donna Vekic or Ons Jabeur, with Garbiñe Muguruza a potential third-round opponent. Halep and Osaka could be waiting for her in the quarterfinals and semifinals, respectively.
Simona Halep and Petra Kvitova look to chase down Osaka.
Halep is seeded No.3 behind No.2 Kvitova in Dubai, but the Romanian, who is in the final of the Qatar Total Open on Saturday, will overtake the Czech at No.2 in the rankings on Monday. Osaka has secured the No.1 ranking through Indian Wells, but with 900 points on the line in Dubai, both Halep and Kvitova have a good opportunity to close the point gap on the youngster, who is set to defend her title in Indian Wells in two weeks.
By making the Doha final, her first final since Cincinnati last year, Halep now sits approximately 1,400 points behind Osaka. She'll open her tournament against either Eugenie Bouchard or Vera Lapko, with a potential Doha final rematch against Elise Mertens looming in the third round. A marquee showdown against either Aryna Sabalenka or Caroline Wozniacki could take place in the quarterfinals, with a must-watch against Osaka potentially in the semifinals.
Australian Open finalist Kvitova opted not to defend her Doha title - which was a Premier 5 title last year - and is back in action for the first time since St. Petersburg this week. After a blistering first five weeks of action, which saw her post a 13-3 record, the big question is whether Kvitova will pick up right where she left off, or need a few matches to find her range again.
Kvitova will open against either her compatriot Katerina Siniakova or Petra Martic. The first seed she could face is Caroline Garcia - though the Frenchwoman has a tough first-round draw against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova - with No.7 seed Kiki Bertens or Daria Kasatkina potentially waiting in the quarterfinals.
Karolina Pliskova and Angelique Kerber could meet for the 12th time.
There's work to be done before this intriguing quarterfinal can take place, but both Pliskova and Kerber come into Dubai with some positive momentum. Pliskova has lost just one match on tour this year, a three-set semifinal loss to Osaka in the Australian Open semifinals. Her only other loss came to Halep a week ago at Fed Cup, meaning the Czech's only two losses this year have come to the last two World No.1s.
Pliskova's 11-2 start to the season, including the title at the Brisbane International, would indicate the Czech is ready for big things once again in 2019. After pulling out of Doha last week with a viral illness, she's looking to win her first Premier 5 title since 2016 Cincinnati. She'll open against either Dominika Cibulkova or a qualifier.
While Pliskova is looking to snap her two-and-a-half year Premier 5 drought, Kerber is still looking to win her first. It's a quirky statistical anomaly for the three-time major champion, but she has yet to win either a Premier 5 or Premier Mandatory title. The German is also looking to snap her eight-month title drought, with her last coming at Wimbledon last summer.
Kerber comes into Dubai after making her first semifinal of the season in Doha, where she lost in three sets to Mertens. She'll open against a qualifier and the first seed she could face is No.10 Anastasija Sevastova in the Round of 16.
Aryna Sabalenka looks to pick up traction on the season.
2019 is set to be a big year for Sabalenka, and on the surface, all signs point to that being true. The big-hitting Belarusian started the year with a title-run at the Shenzhen Open, made her Top 10 debut after the Australian Open, and has compiled an 11-3 record on the year. But through those 11 wins - two of which came at Fed Cup - the 20-year-old has yet to tally a Top 50 win.
Sabalenka's Dubai draw is perfectly set up for a statement run. She comes in rested after taking a week off after Fed Cup and will open against either Camila Giorgi or Sara Errani, who returns to the tour after serving a 10-month suspension for a failed doping test. The first seed Sabalenka could face is Caroline Wozniacki in the Round of 16, with Halep and Osaka as possible opponents before the final.
Notable early round matches: Muguruza vs. Yastremska, Sevastova vs. Hsieh, Garcia vs. Pavlyuchenkova, Vekic vs. Jabeur, Tsurenko vs. Putintseva, Goerges vs. Riske, Kenin vs. Buzarnescu.