The 2021 WTA Season is set to kick off with the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open, a WTA 500 event in the United Arab Emirates. Here's what you need to know as the tour gets underway.
1. The tournament begins on a Wednesday and ends on a Wednesday.
Qualifying is set to begin on Tuesday, January 5th, with main draw play to kick off the 2021 WTA season on Wednesday, January 6th. Both the singles and doubles finals will be played on Wednesday, January 13th.
2. Four Top 10 players lead the field in the first event of the 2021 season.
Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, No.5 Elina Svitolina, No.6 Karolina Pliskova, and No.10 Aryna Sabalenka top the field of this WTA 500 event.
3. A rematch of the 2020 Australian Open final looms in the quarterfinals.
Top-seeded Kenin and two-time major champion Garbiñe Muguruza anchor the top quarter of the draw and could meet in the quarterfinals. Less than 12 months ago, Kenin rallied in the third set to surge to victory in her maiden major final, defeating Muguruza 4-6, 6-2, 6-2 to win the Australian Open. Kenin leads their head-to-head 2-0.
Main Draw in Abu Dhabi, where Sofia Kenin, Elina Svitolina, Karolina Pliskova, and Aryna Sabalenka are the top seeds.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 4, 2021
The 2020 WTA Player of the Year opens her season against a qualifier in the first round and could face No.13 seed Yulia Putintseva in the Round of 16.
Muguruza begins her 2021 campaign against Kristina Mladenovic. The first seed she could face is No.9 seed Maria Sakkari. The Greek star could face 16-year-old Coco Gauff in the second round.
4. Streaking Sabalenka aims to pick up where she left off.
The World No.10 finished the 2020 season on a nine-match winning streak, winning back-to-back titles in Ostrava (d. Azarenka in final) and Linz (d. Mertens in final) and finishing in the Top 10 for the first time in her young career. The 22-year-old has found good success in the first week of the season, having captured the title in Shenzhen in 2019.
The No.4 seed has been drawn into the tough top half of the draw. She opens against Slovenia's Polona Hercog, the first meeting between the two since 2018, and could face No.15 seed Ons Jabeur in the Round of 16. Elena Rybakina, who led the tour with six finals in 2020, also lurks in Sabalenka's quarter.
5. Pliskova looks to tap into her Week 1 success.
The big-serving Czech joined forces with new coach Sascha Bajin during the off-season and will be looking to replicate her historic Week 1 success. Pliskova has won a title in the first week of the season in three of the last four years (2017 Brisbane, 2019 Brisbane, 2020 Brisbane), posting a 16-1 record over that span.
Pliskova opens against Sorana Cirstea, their first singles encounter since 2017 Beijing. The first seed she could face is 16th seed Donna Vekic, who hired coach Sam Sumyk late last season. 2019 Roland Garros finalist Marketa Vondrousova and 2020 US Open semifinalist Jennifer Brady round out the seeds in Pliskova's quarter of the draw.
6. Svitolina, Mertens top wide-open bottom quarter.
The final quarter of the draw features a flurry of standout players from 2020, many of whom have a proven history of fast season starts. No.2 seed Svitolina and No.7 seed Elise Mertens anchor the quarter, with No.10 Anett Kontaveit and No.17 Ekaterina Alexandrova rounding out the seeds.
World No.5 Svitolina captured two titles in 2020 (Monterrey, Strasbourg) and adding a third Roland Garros quarterfinal to her resume. The 2019 WTA Finals champion opens her season against rising American talent Jessica Pegula, with 2020 Palermo champion Fiona Ferro or Vera Zvonareva waiting in the second round.
No.20 Mertens was a consistent force once the tour restarted in 2020, making the quarterfinals or better at six of her last seven events, including two finals (Prague, Linz). The Belgian opens against Alizé Cornet and could face No.23 Kontaveit in the Round of 16. The Estonian posted a strong and steady 2020 season, which included her first major quarterfinal at the Australian Open, her best US Open showing in the Round of 16, and a quarterfinal appearance at the Western & Southern Open.
Russia's Alexandrova proved herself a rising threat on hardcourts last season, capturing the title in Week 1 at the Shenzhen Open and semifinal runs in St. Petersburg and Linz. The 22-year-old opens against Zarina Diyas.
7. Who's got next? Five teenagers add intrigue.
Youngsters have been the story on the WTA Tour over the last four seasons. Jelena Ostapenko seemed to kick off the youth movement by winning 2017 Roland Garros on her 20th birthday, inspiring Naomi Osaka to win her first of three major titles as a nascent 20-year-old a year later.
Canada's teen phenom Bianca Andreescu followed in their footsteps a year later, winning the 2019 US Open (in addition to Indian Wells and Toronto), and it was Poland's 19-year-old Iga Swiatek who kept the trend going in 2020, blasting her way to the Roland Garros title.
Which begs the question: Who's next?
Five teenagers are direct entries into the draw in Abu Dhabi, led by 16-year-old American Coco Gauff. Joining No.48 Gauff are No.88 Leylah Fernandez (18), No.99 Marta Kostyuk (18), No.101 Anastasia Potapova (19), and No.123 Wang Qiyu (19).
Gauff begins her 2021 season against No.260 Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway. Canada's Fernandez takes on Jasmine Paolini, Kostyuk opens against a qualifier, Potapova takes on No.9 seed Sakkari, and Wang takes on the Netherlands' Arantxa Rus.
يعطيكم الصحة الناس الكل الي شجعتوني العام هذا، رغم الظروف الصعيبة الي تعدينا بيها، موسم 2020 الحمد لله كان ايجابي، احسن ترتيب ليا في مسيرتي الرياضية و انشاء الله نوعدكم المزيد من التألق.— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) October 25, 2020
Thank you my team for always supporting me❤️ pic.twitter.com/x3Z6Yq7XKB
8. After a history-making season, Jabeur returns to the Middle East.
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur made history in 2020, becoming the first Arab woman to reach the quarterfinals of a Slam, doing so at the Australian Open. Her Melbourne fortnight would foreshadow a career-best season, as the 26-year-old tallied four additional quarterfinal appearances and finish the season at a career-high No.31.
Seeded No.15 in Abu Dhabi, Jabeur draws a tough opener against Russia's Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
9. First looks at Rybakina, Brady, and Podoroska.
No one wanted to face Elena Rybakina before the season shut down in 2020, where she made four finals in her first four events, including a title in Hobart. And no one wanted to face Jennifer Brady afterwards, as the heavy-hitting American captured her first title in Lexington and backed it up with a semifinal run at the US Open. And through it all, Argentina's Nadia Podoroska won at a fantastic clip on the lower levels, culminating in a semifinal run as a qualifier at Roland Garros and being named 2020's WTA Newcomer of the Year.
All three are in Abu Dhabi and primed to build on their 2020 success. No.6 seed Rybakina opens against a qualifier and could face No.12 seed Karolina Muchova in the Round of 16.
Brady, seeded 11th, opens against Tamara Zidansek, with Canada's Fernandez a possible second-round opponent and eighth seed Vondrousova looming in the Round of 16.
Podoroska, who spent a day practicing with Muguruza in Abu Dhabi, faces Sara Sorribes Tormo in the first round and could face 16th seed Vekic in the second round. Looming in the Round of 16 is Pliskova.
10. Notable first-round matches.
Muguruza vs. Mladenovic, Jabeur vs. Pavlyuchenkova, Kasatkina vs. Q. Wang, Vondrousova vs. Hsieh, Ka.Pliskova vs. Cirstea, Mertens vs. Cornet, Kontaveit vs. Kudermetova, Svitolina vs. Pegula.