Not everyone is a morning person, that individual who goes blasting into the day, fueled by a few cups of coffee -- and a vexing degree of enthusiasm.
In women’s professional tennis, heading into the first two of 10 Hologic WTA Tour 1000-level events, the teeth of the 2024 Middle East swing, it’s still the equivalent of early morning. In the wake of the Australian Open, here are terrific back-to-back opportunities to create some momentum.
It started Sunday with the Qatar TotalEnergies Open in Doha, followed by the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships next week.
No.2-ranked Aryna Sabalenka has been hot out of the box, going 11-1 to start the year -- but the two-time Australian Open champion is sitting out Doha. No.3 Coco Gauff, with a title in Auckland and a semifinal appearance in Melbourne, is 10-1. No one has as many victories (13) or more titles (2) so far than Jelena Ostapenko. On Sunday, No.5 Elena Rybakina matched Ostapenko's title count at the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open.
But, like so many of us, there have been a few notably sluggish starts. Eighteen-time Grand Slam singles champion Martina Navratilova examines the prospects of a handful of players who could use strong runs to get back on track as the Middle East double unfolds.
Ons Jabeur: The favorite daughter of the region has scuffled a bit to start the year, posting a 2-2 record while nursing an injury. The World No.6 was stunned in the second round of the Australian Open by 16-year-old Mira Andreeva. In Abu Dhabi, she defeated Emma Radacanu in straight sets but fell to Beatriz Haddad Maia 6-3, 6-4.
"I have been struggling with the knee for a long time, and last week was very, very tough," Jabeur said Sunday at Media Day in Doha. "Hopefully I can recover in time and then play better here in Doha.
"For me personally, it is very important to be here to connect with Arabic crowds. I feel so much love here in the region, and obviously that’s one of the reasons I chose to play Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai, because I feel so good here."
The pride of Tunisia missed last year’s Middle East swing while nursing an ailing knee but has reached the quarterfinals in Doha twice. Her second-round opponent will be Lesia Tsurenko. With two wins here, Jabeur would become the first African player to reach 50 WTA 1000 match-wins.
Navratilova’s take: "It will be interesting to see if the pressure of 'playing at home' hurts her or helps her. These are her countries; she represents everybody there. Is it a plus or a minus?
"She got beaten badly by Andreeva (6-0, 6-2), so I don’t think her confidence is too high. That she lost wasn’t bad, but how she lost was. But maybe, hopefully, playing there will bring the confidence back -- a new sense of confidence, energy concentration. I hope so because the game is better with her near the top."
Naomi Osaka: The four-time Grand Slam champion left tennis for 16 months and gave birth to daughter Shai. After losing two of her first three matches in Brisbane and Melbourne, Osaka took a wild card into Abu Dhabi last week -- and promptly fell in straight sets to Danielle Collins 7-5, 6-0.
Glass half full: The losses were to Karolina Pliskova, Caroline Garcia and Collins, all former Top 10 players.
Glass half empty: Even with significant time to train for the coming season, it’s been "a bit of a harsh reality."
Her first-round opponent in Doha? Garcia, again. If Osaka loses it will be only the fifth time in her WTA career she’s lost four straight matches.
Navratilova’s take: "Well, I’m glad she’s playing so much. She’s putting herself out there, which is great, and maybe those losses don’t mean as much, especially as she continues to work her way back into playing shape. It’s easier to deal with in a way. But I’d like to see her start winning and get her confidence back."
Maria Sakkari: The No.9-ranked player in the world had an encouraging start to 2024, going 3-0 in United Cup matches, helping Greece to a berth in the quarterfinals. But the only player she beat ranked in the Top 500 was Leylah Fernandez. She won only a single match at the Australian Open, losing to No.74 Elina Avanesyan.
In Abu Dhabi, she lasted just 77 minutes against Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 6-1. She has a first-round bye in Doha but could face dangerous teenager Linda Noskova, who knocked off Iga Swiatek in Melbourne, in the second round.
Maria Sakkari changed racquets. After 10 years, now plays with the Wilson Shift. Says it was the best pre-season she's ever had.— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) January 14, 2024
"It was a big step. People around me were a little bit hesitant, but they could see that I was telling them that I know there's a racquet out there…
Navratilova’s take: "I mean, she’s trying everything. When things go bad, when you’re in a slump like that it’s difficult to talk yourself into being confident. It’s magnified in your brain, always worse in your head. It’s such a struggle against yourself.
"She’s such a competitor, good for the game. You have to admire her perseverance. She fights every point -- I love that."
Marketa Vondrousova: She was the first unseeded woman to win the Wimbledon title last year, but it’s been a rocky start to 2024. Vondrousova’s only win came against No.119 Olga Danilovic at the United Cup. She lost to Zheng Qinwen in Perth, then withdrew from Adelaide with a hip injury. Eventual semifinalist Dayana Yastremska dispatched her in the first round of the Australian Open. The World No.8’s last four dropped sets have produced a total of five games. After a first-round bye, she will face Greet Minnen.
Navratilova’s take: "I think she had a lot of pressure last year after winning Wimbledon, and I think she did a pretty good job with that. She got to the WTA Finals in Cancun but lost some tough matches there. The loss to Yastremska looked like a bad loss -- until Yastremska got to the semifinals, losing a close one to Zheng.
"I think she’s OK. I think the (slow) court in Doha won’t be great for her because she doesn’t create her own speed. Maybe in Dubai it will be a little faster."
Tennis sensations 🎾✨ Iga Swiatek and Marketa Vondrousova ignite the court in a spectacular showdown at MIA Park ahead of the Qatar Total Energies Open! 🏟️ Who are you cheering for this tournament? 🎉👏— Qatar Tennis Federation (@QatarTennis) February 11, 2024
#QatarTotalEnergiesOpen #WTA2024 pic.twitter.com/pECGG23xYy
Barbora Krejcikova: Yes, she’s 5-3 for the season, but … four of those wins came at the Australian Open, none against players ranked among the tour’s Top 45. Krejcikova lost to Sabalenka in the quarterfinals. In Abu Dhabi, Krejcikova advanced in her first match when Sara Sorribes Tormo retired and lost quietly to Liudmila Samsonova (who was 0-3 coming in) in the quarters.
Krejcikova, the No.9 seed, faces Anastasia Potapova in the first round; they’ve split two previous matches, but Potapova won the last one, in the 2022 Hamburg quarterfinals.
Krejcikova won the title last year in Dubai, beating World No.1 Swiatek in the final.
Navratilova’s take: "Listen, I’m not worried about her -- she made the quarterfinals of a major and lost to the eventual champion. Krejcikova is one of the most versatile players on tour. She’s a great doubles player and she excels on all three surfaces, doesn’t matter where she’s playing. Seems to be in a good place mentally. I think she’ll be OK."