The road to Australia was never an easy one. But this year it has taken on an entirely new complexion when it travels through the Middle East. I don’t mean the flights connections! With restrictions placed by the government of Victoria due to Covid-19, players setting their sights on making the main draw of the Happy Slam have to ply their trade by qualifying in Doha (for the men) and Dubai (for the women) from 10-13 January.

Neither of these two cities are strangers to tennis. The Dubai Duty Championships boasts of a fantastic retinue of star players, headlined by the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Simona Halep. Doha has organised its ATP 250 event and the WTA Premier 5 event at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex and has built an equally solid reputation in the tennis world. With many tournaments, including the Tata Open Maharashtra in Pune, having been cancelled at the commencement of the season – partly to accommodate the delayed start of the Australian Open and partly due local health restrictions and for commercial reasons, this move is a bold one for the growth of tennis in Asia and one that we welcome wholeheartedly.

Al Gomes, a veteran journalist for Gulf News, Dubai, praises the Dubai Tennis Championships Tournament Director Salah Tahlak. “Dubai has done well in offering the stage – a historic qualifying rounds for the Australian Open. They’ve not only worked against the clock, but they’ve also kept in mind their own tournament in March.” Salah Talak in his interview to Gulf News proudly states, “The world has been struggling to bounce back from nearly one year of lockdown and sad times. But in Dubai and the UAE, we want to be the first to show the world that there is hope for the future. Getting to host the qualifiers of our season-opening Grand Slam for women is a prestigious vote of confidence to us.

What makes this an exciting pit stop to Australia is a potential home court advantage. While Dubai won’t allow crowds, Doha will allow 30% crowd capacity on a first-cum-first-serve basis. Add to that, the faster courts appeal to all four players who are vying for a coveted spot in the main draw. So, who are the cast of characters?

Ankita Raina

The most exciting prospect is Ankita Raina. While she is yet to make her debut in the main draw of a slam, the gods seem to be aligning the stars correctly this time around! She loves the courts in Dubai and it would appear they love her back! So, unsurprisingly, she says, “I like the conditions in Dubai so I’m looking forward to playing there, I always enjoy being there and also in terms of atmosphere I feel home. I don’t feel there’s going to be much difference only thing it’s summer in Australia at this time of the season so I think Dubai will be bit cooler in January.

Based in Pune, she has specifically working on training to get quicker on court and stronger generally. “My game is based on aggression, so my goal is to keep that throughout the match. I have also been working on the serve.

Al Gomes mentions Ankita’s achievements specifically. “Indian players like Ankita Raina will have an advantage. Ankita was here for the Al Habtoor Tournament Challenge and she did well. She played against the top seed and took a set off and came close in the second and it augurs well as the courts are quick and it suits her game. Overall, i think we can hope to see at least one Indian girl going ahead to Melbourne.

Coming off a Fed Cup victory in March and creating history by moving to the World Group finals stage which was made possible by her singles and doubles win and a stellar finish to the year with a tough 3 set loss to Siniakova but a doubles win at the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge, we are hoping that Dubai and Ankita can together produce some magic!

Dubai has been a happy hunting ground for Ankita Raina

Karman Kaur Thandi 

Plagued with injuries for the last two years, Karman obviously starts with next to no match practice under her belt. Ranked at 626 and playing with a protected ranking of 208, our expectations are muted. However, she seems to be salivating at the prospect of starting the season.”I am physically fit and healthy. Everything has been coming along really well and training is going good. I did my pre-season with Milos (Galecic) and Sascha (Nensel) at the Nensel Tennis Academy. I’m really excited to get back into competing and playing tournaments. I’m looking forward to what 2021 has in store.

Karman has previously trained at the Mouratoglou Tennis Academy in France and cracked the top 200 in 2018. In 2019 played in the qualifiers in the Australian Open and lost to Jen Brady. Standing at 6 feet tall, she has a booming serve, a wicked forehand and all the trappings of a top 100 player. We hope the tennis gods keep a watchful eye over that shoulder. 

Karman will be looking to put injury worries aside as she starts her season in Dubai

Ramkumar Ramanathan

Ram-Ram, as was he nicknamed by the commentators at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, where he was a finalist in 2018, had a very decent year in 2020, making the finals in Ecknental, Germany and ended it on a high winning four consecutive UTR events at the Sanchez Casal Academy in Naples, Florida. 

Ramkumar has spent a lot of time on court by taking part in UTR events in Naples, Florida

Prajnesh Gunneswaran

Back to being the Indian men’s number 1, Prajnesh should be riding high on confidence as he closed 2020 with some exceptional results of successive finals in Orlando, Florida and Cary, North Carolina. “I played more matches at the end of the year. I was a little rusty in the beginning plus I started on clay, which is not the surface on which I have my best results. It just took me some time to start winning matches. I did the same things that I always do, it’s just that I played well, had a couple of good weeks and things fell into place for me.

Having trained in the offseason in Atlanta and Chennai, fitness remains a priority for him after having being out of action due to injuries. Measured as always, he says, “There is no real change because I was getting ready to start the season in the beginning of January, so whether that was in Australia or Doha, it doesn’t really make that much of a difference to me. Usually we start the season in the beginning of January so since this is starting on the 10th – in a way we have a few more days.” 

Having made the main draw at all the slams in 2019, but not created an opening to move to the second round, this will be his third time qualifying at the Australian Open and we have our fingers crossed that this third time is a charm.

Indian No.1 Prajnesh Gunneswaran will be looking to seal an AO Main Draw berth for the third time in a row

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