The 2021 season has officially begun under circumstances decidedly next to normal. For the women of the WTA tour, a pre-season in the Middle East is routine; a brand-new event in Abu Dhabi—funded by the tour to provide players with a tournament before an Australian Open-imposed two-week COVID-19 quarantine in Melbourne—is less so.
Not that anyone is complaining.
“I think we should be grateful,” remarked reigning Australian Open champion and Abu Dhabi top seed Sofia Kenin in pre-tournament press.
“The bubble isn’t the easiest thing; it’s hard on all of us, but it is what it is, and I’m just happy to be able to play and compete.”
Kenin, who will play her first round against Chinese qualifier Yang Zhaoxuan on Thursday, ended her breakthrough 2020 season with a second major final at Roland Garros and enjoyed a productive pre-season that focused mainly on fitness.
“I had a lot of physical points last year, which made fitness No. 1, while also keeping my game strong and trying to improve it.”
Anchoring the other half of the Abu Dhabi draw is No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina. The Ukrainian has fond memories of the city, having spent a trio of pre-seasons on these very courts early in her career.
Where Kenin worked to improve physically, the 26-year-old Svitolina—who opens against American Jessica Pegula—opted to make mental adjustments, and spoke candidly of her decision to hire a sports psychologist.
“She knows pretty much everything, all the small and dark secrets about my life!" Svitolina said. "When I started to work with her, it really released a lot of, not necessarily pressures, but a lot of moments that I thought I would never share with anyone. Maybe I thought it wasn’t good to share with friends, but she really got me to open up and pushed all the right buttons.”
“So far, I can’t say one bad word about him,” she said of Bajin, who has worked with the likes of Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka. “It may be too early to judge something or be too happy with the situation, but I’ve really enjoyed the last couple weeks a lot, and I feel he’s putting everything possible to make me and our team feel good.
“He was around a lot of top players, so he knows what it’s like to be part of a big team, and with big players. He has a lot of that experience, whether it’s been as a hitting partner or a coach, he’s been there. I think that’s super positive. He’s also able to play, so there’s a lot of positives about him. The main thing is that I’m searching for people on my team who put their whole hearts in. Sascha is still doing this, and I’m sure he’s done it in the past, too. Hopefully it’s going to work for some time.”
Set to play Romanian Sorana Cirstea in her first match, the No. 3 seed echoed Kenin’s appreciation for the opportunity to play an extra tournament, still reeling from the interrupted 2020 calendar that rattled the typically metronomic rhythm for which she initially became known.
“We were used to going from tournament to tournament, not thinking about whether we can travel, and many times complaining about wanting to go home. By the end of the year, we were so appreciative, even if it meant staying in the bubble, which is not easy. I definitely don’t want to complain about anything: the rules, the tournaments, the conditions. For me, it’s still better than being home. It could obviously be on the level that we’re used to, but it’s not at a point to be complaining. My family is healthy, and I can travel and do what I want to do, what I love.
“There’s no room for complaining, no matter how my results go.”
It wasn't all serious in Abu Dhabi's All Access Hour, as No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka took the mic in her inimitable fashion before her scheduled clash with crafty Slovenian Polona Hercog.
"This is a great challenge for us. In the future, when everything hopefully passes, I think it’s going to teach us to…"
She suddenly trails off.
"I forgot what I wanted to say! No, wait! Come back…" she laughs and reaches for the lost words before continuing. "It’s a big challenge and it will help us adjust better to situations and respect every opportunity we have.
"That’s what I wanted to say!" she insists of the final clause. "Yes, it’s back here."
The Belarusian unwittingly illustrated the place of almost she and her fellow players currently occupy, how the race for rhythm is currently underway—in all aspects. Through these extenuating circumstances, whoever emerges from Abu Dhabi with what she needs most will likely be one to watch in Australia.