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The Wild, Wild WTA Middle East: In Defense of February’s Finish

When Jelena Ostapenko and Carla Suarez Navarro squared off in Doha earlier Saturday, the encounter was a fittingly left-field finish to the WTA’s fortnight along the coast of the Persian Gulf. This season, seemingly more so than others, tournaments in the Middle East have thrown fans, media and officials countless curveballs in the form of withdrawals as well as upsets. The consequence: numerous hot takes and proclamations of an all but “moribund” WTA Tour. René Denfeld tries to wrap his head around a topsy-turvy month of tennis.

“Anyway, the men’s tennis has always been better than women’s tennis.”

Salah Tahlak was not a happy man after the conclusion of the women’s tournament in Dubai — probably even understandably so. The tournament director of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships — one of the biggest and wealthiest stops on WTA Premier circuit — dealt with blow after blow prior to and during the event at the Aviation Club Tennis Center. After the withdrawals of Serena Williams, Angelique Kerber and Agnieszka Radwanska, the regular February tour stop lost its Top 8 seeds faster than any other tournament in WTA history and the event finished with a one-sided finals between Barbora Strycova and eventual champion Sara Errani.

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“Yes, it’s the real tennis, much stronger than women’s tennis,” Tahlak said to the Khaleej Times when previewing ATP event at the same site this week — which elicited the anger of more than just a few people.

Tahlak tried to compensate his skinning and salting of the WTA by implying that the longer duration of this year’s women’s matches shows an increase in quality of the women’s game — which is certainly one of the more perplexing correlations that thin air has given birth to recently.

“And despite the withdrawals of the big names, it was still a very tough tournament. All the top seeds were out before the quarterfinal stage. So that shows how competitive it was,” Dubai’s tournament director continued.

Unfortunately for Tahlak, his ostensibly appeasing words never really made the rounds unlike his more scathing assessments — and rightly so. You can’t have it both ways and undermine the entire women’s game by virtue of implying it’s “not the real thing” while praising your own tournament for its toughness and competitiveness in the same breath.

February is an intrinsically wobbly month in tennis. Sitting right after the grueling start to the season in Australia, the tours spread out all across the globe during the weeks ahead of Indian Wells and results vary from year to year. Sometimes, there are clear trends, but at other times, results can be all over the shop. Players, male and female, aren’t always showing up at events in sparkling form, and the real question is whether this month and the two “chaotic” tournaments in the Middle East should be considered lynchpins for the on-going discussion about the flux and perceived turmoil within the WTA’s upper echelon.

One predominant storyline has dominated the women’s season so far: a surplus of (prolonged) injuries and form struggles besieging the elite. Even though Top 5 players like Garbiñe Muguruza and Simona Halep claim they are feeling better physically, the aftermath of their ailments continue to linger on their performances due the vicious circle of training deficits, weakened confidence and a run of bad results and losses.

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It’s a theme that has overlapped with the swing through Dubai and Doha, and it’s not an issue that will disappear by the time the tour travels to the U.S. hard courts. It might last well into the clay season and there’s a chance that a few of the current top women won’t find consistency for much 2016.

However, it doesn’t mean there hasn’t be fierce competition.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t fantastic matches across the board.

It doesn’t mean the quality of tennis is going nosedive into the depths.

I also doesn’t mean the tour is lacking champions in the absence of Williams and Sharapova. Just look at the women who have women titles this month: wouldn’t you consider St. Petersburg winner Roberta Vinci  — a player who stuck to her guns and got better and better with age, like robust Apuglian red wine — a champion?

Or Francesca Schiavone? A player possibly past her prime but who keeps playing for the sheer love of the game and picked up her first title in three years in Rio?

Sara Errani and Carla Suarez Navarro –incredibly hard workers who put in the yards, support the tour all year long and maximize their abilities despite being half a foot shorter than the average player on the women’s tour — won the biggest trophies of their careers in Dubai and Doha, respectively. Isn’t succeeding in the face of adversity also a sign of being a champion?

Does it always have to be global superstardom verging on becoming bigger than the sport itself? Champions come in many different forms, and aren’t we doing these players’ efforts a disregard by throwing about flippant remarks like “let’s just forget about February in (women’s) tennis”?

The seed exodus in Dubai and Doha still paved way for intriguing storylines to cover. It’s not just an opportunity for the players but also the media to explore the newcomers as well as the rich second and third tier of the tour, bristling with characters who have plenty of interesting things to say — if you ask them, that is. Sport 360’s Reem Abulleil, for example, did a great job of that in Dubai, and gave fans refreshing narratives and great insight as to the players there were seeing — not the ones missing — over the course of the week.

By virtue of avenging her Wimbledon loss against Jelena Ostapenko in Doha’s championship on Saturday, Carla Suarez Navarro climbs to a career-high ranking of No. 6 — six months after suffering her worst defeat of the last season. Some people will wave off the encounter as “yet another final born out of a chain of random results and withdrawals” but the Doha conclusion featured a crafty, hard-working veteran of the WTA against one of the teenagers who are looking to shake up the system. In that sense it was everything but random — in fact, it was an appropriate summary of women’s tennis in February.

Not just women’s tennis for that matter — men’s tennis, too.

Novak Djokovic is the only semifinalist of the Australian Open to have competed on the ATP tour this month and retired from a match for the first time in years. Roger Federer and Milos Raonic withdrew from events with injuries and while Andy Murray is enjoying fatherhood until Davis Cup.

The other members of the Top12 lost earlier than expected at the very least at one of their scheduled events: young guns like Nick Kyrgios, Taylor Fritz, Alexander Zverev and ever-improving Dominic Thiem made their marks; lesser-known names and persistent veterans like Pablo Cuevas, Martin Klizan, Guido Pella and Marcos Baghdatis reached the final or won ATP 500 events — without being subjected to any of the scrutiny the WTA is facing.

Many have used the past fortnight as a magnifying glass for the current storylines or “issues” within women’s tennis — and it probably is their very right to do so, no matter how shaky the foundations laid out in February are.

But don’t do it at the expense of the bigger picture. Don’t do it at the expense of the players who achieve career results. And don’t forget that it’s not just the women’s tour that sees withdrawals and left-field results in February — particularly if you’re the tournament director of a combined event.

About René Denfeld (202 Articles)
Weather is my business. Tennis is my playground. Born in the year of the Golden Slam. Just give me all the bacon and eggs you have.

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