DUBAI: Titleholder Venus Williams and Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova headed a long list of seeds blown away on Wednesday at the Dubai Open.
Williams, unbeaten in 16 matches over six years here, and Kvitova, the champion two years ago, both failed to reach the quarter-finals, and were joined by another former winner, Agnieszka Radwanska, and a former world number one, Ana Ivanovic.
All were ousted at an upgraded tournament with a first prize which is now nearly half a million dollars, suggesting the pool of talent capable of beating the leading players has deepened.
One of them is Lucie Safarova, a 28-year-old top 20 Czech who outplayed Williams 6-4, 6-2 and whose hard-to-read left-handed serve contrasted markedly with the 34-year-old American’s delivery which appeared half paced amidst on-court temperatures reaching 40 degrees.
“I think she played awesome,” said a gracious Williams.
“There were a couple of games where I didn’t even get my racket on the ball. What can I say to that?”
Karolina Pliskova, a younger Czech, whose steep serve from a six-foot one-inch frame launches an attacking game which is flat and forceful enough to trouble anyone, overcame an often excellent Ivanovic 6-2, 4-6, 6-4.
Ivanovic didn’t help her cause with two double faults near the end which scuppered her chances.
“We don’t have many players like that,” said Ivanovic.
“She (Pliskova) hits very flat and she hits quite late so it’s difficult to tell where she’s going to go.”
Pliskova, 22, however has an idea where she wants to be going.
“I always knew if I can keep to my game, serve good, and play aggressive from the baseline, and if it’s going, I can really, like, beat everyone,” she said.
However perhaps the most likely player to burst on to the 2015 scene in a big way is Garbine Muguruza, a 21-year-old Spaniard who plays fearlessly and who overwhelmed an ailing Radwanska by 6-4, 6-2.
“I think that nowadays like there are so many girls that play so good that the difference between the top players and the other ones are really small,” Muguruza said.
Another Spaniard, Carla Suarez Navarro, accounted for Kvitova by 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 on a tree-lined outside court where flocks of birds increased in numbers and made an increasing cacophony as the sun went down.
Navarro’s ground strokes always looked as if they might be slightly too much for the under-pressure second seed who mostly played quite well even though her swerving serve did not always make the angles she would have liked.
Kvitova was aware of the danger from the start.
“I think, like, the top 50 is pretty same level, and only in the small, important key points it’s different,” she said.
“Everybody can beat everyone in the top. And, yeah, maybe it’s nice for the fans to see something new.”
Muguruza has hopes of reaching the top 20 by the end of the week. Navarro is inside the 20 already. They now play each other.
Fortunately Simona Halep, the top seed, and Caroline Wozniacki, the former world number one, both survived – a relief to tournament stakeholders fearful of losing all the famous names.
By far the biggest miss will be Williams. Her loss was the more surprising given that it was only her second of the year, and that she is hopeful of returning to the world’s top ten after a four-year interval.
“But I don’t think I was playing badly and have been super happy with the year so far,” she said.
She may go to Doha next week but confirmed she will not go to Indian Wells to join her sister Serena Williams, the world number one, who will return to the Californian event after 14 years during which both sisters have boycotted the tournament – a response to hostile treatment from spectators.
Asked if she understood Serena’s decision to let bygones be bygones, Venus said: “Um, I don’t know. I just respect every decision she makes, pretty much. There’s nothing complicated about it.”