If you thought the women’s tennis season was over, apparently it’s never over.
How else could there be so many compelling storylines at a $100,000 ITF Pro Circuit event in Dubai, in the middle of December?
You wonder when some of these women found the time to have an off-season.
The cutoff for the original entry list of 24 players was inside the top 200. The top half-dozen of them are directly into the Australian Open, and the rest easily into the qualifying draw.
Why, then, are they playing the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in Dubai in mid-December?
Well, money’s a part of it for many, obviously. The winner’s share is $15,200; the runner up earns $8,100, and so on.
For someone like former world No. 7 Belinda Bencic, it’s making up for lost time.
Bencic is back
The 20-year-old from Switzerland was off the court nearly six months from April on after wrist surgery. Before that, recurring back issues had dropped her ranking outside the top 100.
She returned in mid-September with her ranking outside the top 300.
Bencic could have waited another few weeks and taken an injury-protected ranking (her ranking wasn’t great when she stopped, but it was a lot better than No. 312). But she chose to play. She’s gone 26-3 since her return.
Bencic dropped only one set in her first event back, a $100,000 ITF title win in Russia. She dropped just one set in winning 10 singles matches to take a pair of WTA 125K titles in Thailand. And that ensured she was able to squeeze back inside the top 100 just in time to meet the Australian Open singles entry deadline.
But instead of taking a break, she’s playing Dubai, and she’s in the semifinals after defeating Mihaela Buzarnescu Thursday.
“It’s the first time I’m doing it, actually. I would be here doing the preparation anyway and I have a tournament in front of my nose, so why wouldn’t I play it?” Bencic told Sport360.com. “I think it’s good because we can figure out how that works for the first time so we’ll see and until now it’s good and I’m enjoying it,” she said.
There are other WTA Tour players doing their pre-season in Dubai. Dominika Cibulkova (who hasn’t played since the end of September), Ons Jabeur (who has a new coach, former Heather Watson coach Diego Veronelli) and Maria Sakkari among them. But they aren’t playing.
Errani back with a vengeance
Bencic isn’t the only recognizable name in the tournament.
And if there’s a theme, it’s one of comebacks – from injury and, in the case of Sara Errani, from a falling ranking and a two-month doping suspension.
Errani, who also is in the quarter-finals, missed two months – from the week of the Rogers Cup in early August until her return in Tianjin, China the second week of October.
At that point, her ranking had fallen to No. 280. By qualifying and reaching the semifinals, she quickly lopped 100 spots off that number. She won a $60,000 ITF event the following week in China.
Clearly she also was hoping for a Bencic-like rise, so she wouldn’t have to play the qualifying in Australia. But it didn’t work out that way. Errani won just one match in her next three tournaments, including a pair of WTA 125K events.
And so, she’s also in Dubai, with a ranking of No. 143 but facing the prospect of qualifying in Australia, as she did successfully (as the 2012 French Open finalist) in Paris this spring. A year ago in Melbourne, she came in ranked No. 53.
Top seed out in first round
The No. 1 seed in Dubai this week was Timea Babos, currently ranked No. 56 in singles after finishing 2016 at No. 26.
Her singles ranking fell steadily all season, although she rallied late with finals appearances at small back-to-back WTA Tour events in Quebec City and Uzbekistan. But she played just two matches after the end of September, and lost both of them.
So there was plenty of time for physical work at home in Budapest. Babos has a heavy load early in the new season. She’s scheduled for Shenzhen, Hobart, the Australian Open, Taipei and then likely Fed Cup in Estonia.
A one-hander comes back
Russia’s Margarita Gasparyan made a little noise awhile back, in part because she’s one of the rare players on the WTA Tour with a onehanded backhand.
Just turned 23, she was out nearly a year and a half. Gasparyan retired in the second set of her first-round match at Wimbledon in 2016.
And she didn’t resurface until the first round of qualifying at the WTA Tour event in Moscow in mid-October of this year.
She was in the top 60 when she stopped, reaching a career high of No. 41 in February, 2016.
And then she had not one, not two but three surgeries on her knee. Nothing seemed to work. Until it finally came around.
Gasparyan will be a story to watch if she can round into form quickly. She received a wild card into the qualifying in Dubai and won two rounds before losing to Fiona Ferro of France in the final round.
Two years ago, she reached the round of 16 at the Australian Open. On a protected ranking, this will be her first trip back. She has entered the qualifying both in Auckland (even if her protected ranking would have earned her direct entry into the main draw) and Sydney.
Ajla Tomljanovic carrying on
The thing about tennis and shoulder surgeries is that unlike, say, baseball pitchers, players seem to have a heck of a time trying to come back to where they were – especially on the serve.
Maria Sharapova is a prime-time example of that. Canada’s Aleksandra Wozniak also has never even been close to the same.
Ajla Tomljanovic of Croatia (via Australia, via Boca Raton) is another player for whom the jury is still out. And she had a great serve.
Tomjlanovic had surgery on her serving shoulder in March, 2016. After playing just two matches in January and Australia, she was done. And although she tried hard to get back for the 2017 Australian summer (especially as she, at that point, was taking steps to represent Australia), she couldn’t.
She came back in late February 2017, in Acapulco. And she has mostly played through the season. Dubai is her 21st tournament, with three retirements.
In the meantime, it seems she has reconciled with boyfriend Nick Kyrgios, after a little split over the summer. So everything is looking up.
Continuing the roll
The No. 2 seed in Dubai is Mihaela Buzarnescu of Romania, the 29-year-old lefty who came along so quickly in the latter part of 2017 that she still doesn’t rate a photo on her page on the ITF website (although the WTA site did her a solid).
Buzarnescu, who has a PhD, was a top-five junior who has been star-crossed with injuries during her pro career, and spent the first 10 years mostly at the ITF level.
But suddenly, this year, she bloomed. Ranked No. 351 in January, she sits at a career high No. 59. And she probably doesn’t want to stop the momentum.
Buzarnescu has already played 128 matches this year, singles and doubles combined (74 in singles alone) and lost just three games in her first two singles matches in Dubai before going down to Bencic, 7-6, 6-2, in the quarterfinals Thursday.
The lefty qualified at the US Open – her first Grand Slam main draw – and then she took off. Two weeks later she played a $80,000 ITF, and she won it. A few weeks after that, she qualified for her first WTA event in Linz, and reached the semifinals.
She won another $100,000 tournament, then reached the final of yet another the week after that, then won a $60,000 event in Japan.
Buzarnescu might go into Australia tired, but she’ll be match tough. She’s playing Shenzhen and Hobart before the big event.
Other names in Dubai include Patty Schnyder (who will head down to play the Australian Open – in qualifying – for the first time since 2011). Also there was 38-year-old Greta Arn, who retired for 4 1/2 years, returned in July with no ranking and is now inside the top 300.
If you were looking for storylines, and for players to look out for in January, this tournament has all you could ask for.