Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova take top billing at the Qatar Open which starts Monday under strict Covid-19 safety protocols and without several top stars.
World number one Ashleigh Barty, reigning Wimbledon champion Simona Halep and former Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin have all withdrawn, thinning an already diminished field.
The tournament took a further hit Saturday when French Open champion Iga Swiatek also withdrew moments after winning the Adelaide WTA title.
The absences leave fifth-ranked Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova, the world number six, the headline acts with the highest-ranked Arab player in WTA history Ons Jabeur as well as Egypt’s Mayar Sherif also taking to the hard courts in Doha.
This month’s delayed Australian Open was characterised by a hard lockdown which saw players confined to their quarantine hotels, highlighting the challenges of staging sporting events in the age of Covid-19.
Qatar has pressed ahead with events despite seeing an uptick in virus cases, staging the FIFA Club World Cup earlier this month with stadiums at 30 percent capacity.
America’s Denis Kudla was told he had tested positive for the coronavirus mid-match at the Australian Open qualifying tournament in Doha last month.
He then sealed victory before going into quarantine.
– ‘Hungry to play’ –
Qatar recorded 118 new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days, up two percent from the week before.
Spectators will be required to present a contact tracing app, undergo temperature checks and wear masks at all times. Attendance will be limited by law to 20 percent of capacity.
Jabeur meanwhile said she “had a little bit of time to practice following Melbourne… a small pre-season to kind of get back on the court”.
She and around 70 others were forced to isolate ahead of the first Grand Slam of 2021 after virus cases were detected in other passengers on their charter flight.
“I feel great back here in Doha, one of my favourite places — it’s an extra motivation to work even harder,” she said ahead of the tournament at the Khalifa International Tennis Complex.
“I’ve never won here before but it’s a big deal for an Arab man or woman to win such a tournament, honestly it’s one of my goals.”
Earlier this month, Sherif became the first Egyptian woman to win a main draw Grand Slam match at the Australian Open, defeating fellow qualifier Chloe Paquet in straight sets.
World number 11 Kiki Bertens will return to the WTA Tour for the first time since 2020 Roland Garros after undergoing achilles surgery in October.
“I’m feeling good. It’s been a while of course… I’ve had lots of rehab and recovery — ready and hungry to play,” she said.
Bertens said that preparing for the tournament amid the pandemic “was tough”.
“Lots of things were closed… I had some exceptions so I could at least practice. Of course everything for me was indoors because it was winter in the Netherlands. For me to play outdoors again it’s a big difference.”
Maximum temperatures in the coming week will hover between 25 and 27 degrees Celsius.