The new WTA tournament to help struggling players prepare for the Australian Open has its own challenges.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova slowly realized, deep into her first game of the new season, that she did not have a clue about the result.
After keeping her serve to beat Ons Jabeur 6-5, when the umpire ruled that the match was over, the Russian tennis player was preparing to serve again.
She exclaimed as Pavlyuchenkova walked back to her chair, “Are we still in the first set? I’m completely lost. Oh my God!”
She had a fair reason for being confused.
Pavlyuchenkova just hasn’t played a lot of matches recently, like so many of her peers. On Tuesday, for the first time since leaving Roland Garros on Oct. 2, she returned to competition.
Since she did not fly to the US Open in August and the autumn swing of the WTA, typically held in China, was cancelled after the nation agreed not to allow any international sporting events in 2020, in the past 13 months she has only played four tournaments.
In this context, a new event, the WTA Tournament in Abu Dhabi, which has obtained a tournament license for only one year, has been established.
Its claimed presence is simply to give WTA players the chance to compete, earn cash and do their jobs before the delayed first Slam of the year flies to Australia. There are no fans to cheer on the players, and the $565,530 prize money is slightly less than last year’s total $1,434,900 prize money that the Brisbane tournament had this time.
The spectacle given only by the athletes is a sight to behold, as in other sports that have foregone all frills during the pandemic. Their rivalry and determination, a reminder that they play only for themselves, have been maintained.
Daria Kasatkina, a talented 23-year-old Russian who broke through at the same time as Naomi Osaka when they met in the 2018 Indian Wells Final, was the first winner of the 2021 season.
While Osaka soared to stratospheric heights, the rating of Kasatkina plummeted. It’s been hard to maintain a rhythm over the past six months as she seeks to return to the top of the sport.
“Honestly, I was a little disappointed that we had very few tournaments at the end of the season because I was starting to feel really good,” she said. “I’ve been trying to do my best to not lose that feeling again through this fairly long preseason.”
The difficulties for Europeans, who frequently spend their pre-season on warmer shores, were also obvious, because after months of training at home in the winter, they had to adapt to warm conditions immediately. “It’s a bit difficult,” Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit said. We’ve been training for so long, and then we’re here all of a sudden and have a couple of days to get used to it.
I’ve been practicing indoors for two or three months in Estonia.
Going outside and taking a few days and then going straight into competition is certainly different.
Her hand was soon coated in blisters in Abu Dhabi after spending her long preseason in Tallinn, where temperatures average -2°C in December. “The air here is so dry and I’ve been in Estonia for so long that my skin just wasn’t used to it at first,” she said.
When world No. 23 lost to Veronika Kudermetova, ranked 46th, it did not help her cause.
Both the small and large obstacles in this present normalcy, those who are resilient enough to adjust to all the difficulties ahead and keep themselves energized now that they can not depend on the crowd to cheer them on will be the most effective players of this unique era.
They can try.
Asked if it still feels like she’s playing in an Arab country without her name being roared by the regular Arab crowds, Jabeur noted that she wished in vain that before the end of the tournament fans would be able to join. The Tunisian shrugged then. “On [the court], I see Abu Dhabi.
I note, therefore, that I am here in Abu Dhabi. That’s supposed to be enough.