Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, Chairman Al Habtoor Group, (right) and Naser Al Marzooqi pose for a picture after the draw along with Ankita Raina, Sandra Samir, Natalia Vikhlyantseva and other dignitaries.
Amir Naqvi, Sports Editor
Serving as a springboard for success for many players from across the world for more than two decades, the annual 24th Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge gets underway on Monday with Zhang Shuai, Zheng Saisai and Xinyu Wang among top names competing for the honours.
Brainchild of Khalaf Ahmad Al Habtoor, Chairman Al Habtoor Group, the tournament was one of the first professional women’s tennis events in the region and over the years, it has spun the wheel of fortune of now well-known players like former world number one Jelena Jankovic (champion in 2003), Marion Bartoli (2005), Maria Kirilenko (2007) and Sania Mirza (2010).
Habtoor’s penchant and his unwavering support to the sport have played an instrumental role in the growth of women’s tennis circuit).
Still striving to enhance the event, Habtoor has plans to further raise the profile of the annual tournament.
“Our ambitions for this tournament are big. We are in the process of a big announcement that will see us co-operating with a Government department and this will really raise the profile of our tournament,” Habtoor said at the draw ceremony that was held in the presence of top players including India’s Ankita Raina, Egypt’s Sandra Samir and Natalia Vikhlyantseva of Russia.
Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge was founded in 1998 to encourage the development of women’s tennis in the UAE and through the Arab world.
The entry list of the tournament features two players from top-100.
Taking place at the courts of the Habtoor Grand Resort and Spa, the women’s tournament will see a singles’ draw of 32 players and a doubles’ draw of 16 battling for the ultimate champions’ trophies when the event concludes on Saturday.
The tournament’s first ten players are all ranked within the top 150 on the WTA Rankings.
The top seed Zhang from China will start the campaign against Ankita, India’s top-ranked player.
The Indian tennis star will try to give her best shot to win the singles title as she won the doubles crown at the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge alongside Ekaterine Gorgodze of Georgia last year.
Ankita last competed at St Petersburg Open in Russia where she made the main draw as a lucky loser and was beaten 6-1, 6-1 in the first round by Allyson Riske of the US.
Last week, Ankita received the prestigious Arjuna Award from President Ram Nath Kovind.
“The year 2021 has been a year of achievements and milestones for me. I enjoyed participating in WTA events and teaming up with Sania Mirza in doubles at the Tokyo Olympics."
“Of course, it’s not straightforward being part of bio-bubbles for months," said the Asian Games singles Bronze medallist.
This year’s tournament promises to be an engrossing affair led by the two Chinese who are ranked No.1 and 3 for China and No. 58 and 87 on the WTA Tour. Wang Xinyu, who is currently ranked No.107, will be the third Chinese player featuring in the top-10 here.
Zhang had a career-high ranking of world No.23 in November 2016, while she achieved her career-high doubles ranking of No.8 in the doubles in October this year.
In a career that included a quarter-final appearance at the 2016 Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2019, Zhang has so far won 24 singles titles, of which 20 are on the ITF Circuit and two on the WTA Tour.
Now 32, Zhang also has another 19 doubles titles to her name, including the 2019 Australian Open and the 2021 US Open, on both occasions partnering Australia’s Samantha Stosur.
Zheng will be seeded No. 2 here. The 27-year-old has won one WTA singles title, five WTA doubles titles while reaching the final of the 2019 French Open in doubles with compatriot Duan Yingying.
A regular on the Chinese Fed Cup team, Zheng reached her career-high singles ranking of world No.34 in the first week of March 2020, while she peaked at No.15 in the doubles’ rankings in the first half of July 2016.
The event is now classified as a $100,000 + H tournament on the ITF Women’s Circuit.
The tournament began as a $25,000 ITF competition and was then classified as a $75,000 event from 1999 to 2015.
Since 2016, this competition has been upgraded to a $100,000+H ITF event with some of the biggest names from professional women’s tennis making an appearance.
Last year, Sorana Cirstea became the second successive Romanian player to win the singles crown when she got the better of Czech girl Katerina Siniakova in three sets (4-6, 6-3, 6-3).
Ana Bogdan had breezed past Daria Snigur 6-1, 6-2 to take the 2019 title. In 2014, Alexandra Dulgheru became the first Romanian to win when she got the better of Kimiko Date-Krumm 6-3, 6-4.
Egypt’s Sandra Samir is hoping for a winning main draw debut after being handed a wild card entry at this week’s 24th Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge. The 24-year-old – one of four wild cards here this week – was drawn to play eighth seed Polona Hercog of Slovenia in their opening round match.
Sixth seeded player Na-Lae Han beat giant-killer Kathinka Von Deichmann in straight sets 6-1, 7-6 in 1 hour and 31 minutes, to storm into the semi-finals of the Al Habtoor Women’s 25K in Dubai on Thursday. Von Deichmann had stunned top seed
The top four seeded players took a step closer to qualifying to the main draw at the end of Day One qualifiers at the 24th Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge at the Habtoor Grand Beach Resort and Spa, on Sunday.
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