This year’s Middle East swing ended with one name standing out above everyone else. Iga Swiatek strung together a spotless performance this past Saturday to win the Qatar TotalEnergies Open in Dubai.
In her first response in press afterward, Swiatek spoke of the cool-headed approach and consistency she showed not only against Anett Kontaveit in the final, but for the season at large.
“Well first of all,” she said, “I'm pretty happy that I was composed and I stayed in the same shape I was for the whole tournament, because playing finals is a different feeling. It's always a little bit more stress.”
Swiatek joined Dubai champion Jelena Ostapenko from the week before as winners at this year’s two events in the Middle East. Ostapenko was equally as impressive as Swiatek. The 2017 Roland Garros champ knocked off four former Grand Slam winners along the way to capture the WTA 500 title.
What was our biggest takeaway from this two-week swing? And how will this translate into the upcoming back-to-back WTA 1000 events in Indian Wells and Miami? We asked … and answered some of the pressing questions.
Which is your biggest takeaway?
Jason Juzwiak: The Middle East swing felt like a confirmation of the current positioning at the top of the rankings. Rankings No.2 through No.10 have been swapped around incessantly, but those 10 players (excepting injured Karolina Pliskova) have consistently appeared deep in draws. Considering six of those players were newcomers to the Top 10 just last year, it’s a remarkable level of stability. In Doha, six of the Top 10 reached the quarterfinals.
Regular challengers to that group are also firming up. If Ostapenko can come close to replicating her recent nine-match winning streak a couple more times, a Top 10 return will be a foregone conclusion. Coco Gauff briefly dipped out of the Top 20 but she posted another big result at a top-tier event to claw her way back in.
Now it is up to talented players outside the Top 20 like veteran champion Simona Halep and improving teen Clara Tauson to see if they can find opportunities to poke holes in these draws and further upend some of these players.
Alex Macpherson: The conventional wisdom is that big-hitting teenagers will improve as they learn to harness their power, learn the virtues of point construction and generally develop a more well-rounded game. But trust galaxy-brain strategist Jelena Ostapenko to upend that. The Latvian's dedication to offense and veneration of the outright winner has long been the stuff of legend, but it turns out that her problem all along was that she hadn't been aggressive enough.
Across three strong weeks in February, Ostapenko won 12 of 14 matches, including defeats of six Grand Slam champions within nine days in Dubai and Doha. She won her fifth title in Dubai, bookended by semifinal runs in St. Petersburg and Doha. It was the most consistent run of her career; it was supremely clutch, as demonstrated by consecutive deciding tiebreak victories over Swiatek and Petra Kvitova. It puts her on the verge of a return to the Top 10. Her secret? Abandon accuracy. Stop thinking. Just hit winners.
Between her expressive character and extremities of her game, Ostapenko has long been one of the tour's most charismatic entertainers. Whether engaged in knife-edge rollercoasters or rendering opponents helpless, she was magnetic in the Middle East. The apex was a 6-2, 6-2 win against Garbiñe Muguruza in the Doha quarterfinals in which Ostapenko fired 39 winners in 66 minutes - 2.4 winners per game and 1.7 winners every minute. Even when she finally blew herself out in the next round, Ostapenko was arguably a lucky netcord away from pulling off a comeback against Kontaveit.
Courtney Nguyen: There was never a doubt Swiatek would be a dominant force on clay for years to come, but six months of the season is played on hard courts. Leveling up her hard-court game was just a matter of time, but I’m not sure we expected that improvement to come so quickly. The decision to part ways with Piotr Sierzputowski and bring on Tomasz Wiktorowski in the off-season was a tough one, but the results have now put her at ease.
At 20 years old, Swiatek now has a major title and two WTA 1000s under her belt. Through the first two months of the season she hasn’t taken a bad loss – Barty (Adelaide), Collins (Australian Open) and Ostapenko in a third-set tiebreak (Dubai). Consistency was always the question for Swiatek. She’s come a long way toward silencing those doubts.
Outside of the two winners, Ostapenko in Dubai and Swiatek in Doha, which player impressed you the most?
Juzwiak: It's difficult to pick anyone but Ostapenko, who confirmed what we all know she’s capable of, and also shocked us by doing it over and over for nearly two full weeks.
So I’ll have to go with the only player to stop her last month, Anett Kontaveit, who also pulled together a nine-match winning streak in February. Kontaveit is an aggressive player like Ostapenko, but unlike Ostapenko’s current willingness to lean into her unpredictability, Kontaveit has reeled herself in just a hair to improve her margins. She has taken that edge in consistency to regain control of her rivalry with Ostapenko after an Eastbourne final loss last year.
And it’s not just one head-to-head she is leaning on -- Kontaveit has won 61 matches since the start of 2021, more than any other player on tour. If Kontaveit can start picking up big points at more top-tier events like she did in Doha (and at the WTA Finals), her recent Top 5 debut is only the beginning.
Her stock just keeps on rising 📈— wta (@WTA) February 28, 2022
A TOP 5 DEBUT for 🇪🇪 @AnettKontaveit_!
More movements in this week's Rankings Watch ⬇️
Macpherson: Few people would have seen Dayana Yastremska's run to the Dubai quarterfinals coming. The Ukrainian had won just five WTA main-draw matches since last July and was 0-3 in Australia. But a win by Yastremska against Tauson in qualifying was backed up by a superb upset of Barbora Krejcikova in the second round - her first Top 5 win since February 2020, and one in which her power game seemed close to its best.
Days later, Yastremska's life was turned upside down after she was forced to flee the war in Ukraine. She bid farewell to her parents who stayed behind and was suddenly a refugee and guardian to her 15-year-old sister, Ivanna. On an entirely different level, the bravery Yastremska showed in first taking to the court this week in Lyon and then in saving two match points to defeat Ana Bogdan in the first round, goes beyond sport.
Nguyen: Kontaveit continues to impress. There have been no signs of a letdown. On the heels of an outstanding February, where she won nine of 10 matches and made the final of the two tournaments she played, winning St. Petersburg, she finally made her well-deserved Top 5 debut. In Doha she navigated a tough draw that included wins against Konjuh, Mertens, Jabeur and Ostapenko to complete a streak of nine matches before Swiatek stopped her in the final.
Best match of the Middle East swing was …
Juzwiak: Jelena Ostapenko def. Garbiñe Muguruza 6-2, 6-2, Doha quarterfinals
The best performance (and the most memorable by far) was Ostapenko’s 6-2, 6-2 tour de force against Muguruza in the Doha quarterfinals. As Alex mentioned, she hit 39 winners against a former World No.1 and two-time Grand Slam champion. Muguruza didn’t play badly, because she was reduced to a spectator, as anyone would have been on that day.
And seeing all of Ostapenko’s winners, lined up in a row, take hold of social media demonstrates that an Ostapenko at peak form is a boon for the game. An hourlong match isn’t usually anyone’s idea of a classic, but a soloist giving a command performance is something you can’t turn away from.
Macpherson: Ons Jabeur def. Tereza Martincova 6-1, 3-6, 6-3, Doha third round.
When Jabeur is in "walking highlight reel" mode, just sit back and enjoy the show. Or in this case, enjoy the show, get plunged into uncertainty and chaos as it goes off the rails and then get swept up again by a glorious comeback down the home stretch.
Credit Tereza Martincova, whose elegant striking and ability to move the ball around the court has made the Czech an increasing threat in any draw and who proved a worthy foil. But for the first set and final three games, Jabeur was at her best, pulling off every shot in the book and several she invented on the fly. The Tunisian has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the Middle East crowd ever since her 2020 breakthrough, and she electrified them with this match.
Nguyen: Ostapenko def. Kvitova, 5-7, 7-5, 7-6(9), Dubai quarterfinals.
After a slow start to the season, Kvitova found her range and looked sharp in Dubai, beating Camila Giorgi and Sabalenka to make her first quarterfinal of the season. But as well as Kvitova was playing, she had the bad fortune of running into a confident and in-form Ostapenko. In a match that saw leads build only to quickly evaporate – Ostapenko led the first set 4-2, Kvitova led the seconds set 5-3 and led the deciding tiebreak by 4-2 – Ostapenko would save match point and close out a win that sparked her run to the Dubai title.
Based on the results the past couple of weeks, which player is most in need of a strong performance at the upcoming Sunshine Double in Indian Wells and Miami?
Juzwiak: Paula Badosa cracked the Top 4 of the rankings a couple weeks ago but went just 1-2 in the Middle East. With Swiatek and Kontaveit putting on strong performances and rising in the rankings, they pushed Badosa back out of the Top 5. Last October, Badosa took the Indian Wells title, the biggest one of her career, so making a statement in the environment that brought her such success would be, if not imperative, greatly helpful to reasserting herself at the top of the game. As we saw in Sydney this year, there’s no question she belongs there, she just needs to get that winning feeling back.
Macpherson: Two players in particular underperformed in the Middle East. Muguruza lost to Veronika Kudermetova in the second round of Dubai and was blown away by Ostapenko in the Doha quarterfinals. Muguruza's season record is just 5-4. She firmly put herself in the conversation for Grand Slam titles and a potential return to the World No.1 following the 2021 WTA Finals, but the Spaniard has quietly taken herself out of contention for both again.
But ebbs and flows of form aren't unusual in Muguruza's career. More surprisingly, Krejcikova's run of consistency since winning Roland Garros last year came to an end. She won only two matches in the Middle East and took a pair of early losses, to Yastremska and Ostapenko. On the face of it, running into two red-hot big hitters isn't cause to sound the alarm, but it was striking how few answers Krejcikova had in terms of tactics or execution in those matches.
Nguyen: I’m going to go outside the box on this one and go with Daria Kasatkina. Ranked No.26, Kasatkina has started the season 10-5, but has run up against Swiatek in three consecutive tournaments – Australian Open, Dubai, and Doha – and didn’t win a set. Based on how she played in Australia, I think Kasatkina was hard done by her draws. I’d like to see how she fares at Indian Wells and Miami without - hopefully for her - Swiatek anywhere near her draw.