TENNIS analyst Gavin Mair (@gavinnightmair) returns to highlight his favourite fancies from the women's side of the 2020 Qatar Open from Doha.
WTA Doha | 23rd February – 1st March 2020 | Amazon Prime
The second leg of the Middle East swing of the WTA tour commences Sunday in Doha. Simona Halep, the winner of a competitive tournament in Dubai last week, has withdrawn through fatigue and a satisfaction with bagging her first title of 2020.
This week is a higher stakes tournament than the week previous and features a loaded draw with only a couple of high profile absentees. World number 1 Ash Barty plays here for the first time in her career, but my eyes look elsewhere for identifying the likely champion.
The last two incarnations of the Premier 5 category Doha event have featured strong showings from the sport’s power hitters. 2018 saw Petra Kvitova crowned as champion, whilst 2016 showcased a breakthrough run for Jelena Ostapenko.
The years in between – at the downgraded Premier status event – saw 2 attack minded players triumph with Karolina Pliskova doing the business in 2017 and Elise Mertens in 2019, as well as strong runs from fast court friendly players such as Garbine Muguruza, Karolina Muchova and Julia Goerges.
By breaking the draw down quarter by quarter it is easiest to determine who has the plum draw this week in Doha.
The first quarter is packed full of talent and looks like a difficult one to call.
The aforementioned Barty is the top seed, but her lack of history in this part of the world puts me off, and having not played since Australia it is unclear how her form will be. Her record at Premier 5 level tournaments is strong and I would expect her to be on her game, but her level is unknown and she would have to overcome difficult challenges in the round of 16 and quarter final.
Breakthrough player of the season Elena Rybakina is forecast to play Barty in the round of 16, and although the Aussie handled Rybakina well in Australia it has been clear over recent weeks that Rybakina is both a quick learner, and a quick improver with an inspirational coach in her corner that has prepared her well for whatever challenge comes her way.
Surely Rybakina is going to be too tired to continue her recent form which has seen her make the final in St. Petersburg and Dubai in back to back weeks. However, with Rybakina’s talent and easy playing style it would still be brave to oppose her.
The bottom half of the quarter is also packed with quality as a repeat of the Australian Open final between Garbine Muguruza and Sofia Kenin is scheduled for the round of 16. But before that stage players like Dayana Yastremska or the talented Daria Kasatkina may have something to say about that.
Barty is a deserving favourite to come through this quarter but looks a risky investment, and there is not enough value on her likely opposition for me to make a play here.
This quarter looks quite soft to me as it is headlined by the rarely convincing Karolina Pliskova. The Czech is a consistent top 5 ranked player, but she possesses a basic game style and often gets put in her place by quality opponents when there is a sizeable prize on the line.
She should make her way to the round of 16 but there she may have a tricky obstacle from a handful of difficult matchups such as Dubai semifinalist Jennifer Brady or the ultra aggressive Ons Jabeur, both of whom you could foresee causing Pliskova difficulties.
The main beneficiary of the soft quarter looks to be Petra Kvitova, who will be difficult to stop if Doha plays to the strengths of power players this year. The likes of the seeded Petra Martic will likely not have the gumption to take advantage of any Kvitova struggles.
The most dangerous immediate challenger to Kvitova could be Jelena Ostapenko, who has been finding her feet again this season after a wayward couple of years. However, Kvitova looks the standout player here and I have backed her at 14/1 with Bet365 to win the title in Doha.
The 4th and 5th seeds are featured in the third quarter, but both of them look vulnerable at the moment and I think it is wise to oppose them.
Elina Svitolina has had a shocking start to the 2020 season, and was bounced out of her so-called favourite tournament in Dubai in only an hour against qualifier Jennifer Brady.
Svitolina looked bereft of confidence and like a deer lost in the headlights. Her game style is based on fluid movement and a strong thou-shall-not-pass mentality. However, with those features currently absent in her game she is a bird for the cats to any competent ball striker she may encounter.
The 5th seed is Belinda Bencic, and whilst I am extremely high on her chances to breakthrough and win a Slam, it looks a ridiculous proposition currently given her erratic form.
Bencic started like a house on fire last week in Dubai by outgunning Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the early stages of her match with an exciting and unplayable level – which is why I rate her so highly because her peak is better than almost any other player on tour.
However, as soon as Pavlyuchenkova settled down and adopted a gung ho attacking style Bencic panicked and had a complete dip in form, losing 12 of the final 14 games of the match to be eliminated from the tournament that she won a year prior.
There are some long odds players that I believe can feasibly do well in Doha this week. In Svitolina’s section I am high on the potential of Iga Swiatek, the young Polish player that made the quarte-rfinal of the Australian Open. Swiatek could be a top 10 player in the next 18 months, and with a draw before her that is not insurmountable she could continue her progress by winning the 3rd quarter this week.
I am backing Swiatek to win quarter 3 at 10/1 with Bet365.
A safer investment looks to be 2019 Doha champion Elise Mertens, who has been playing to a decent level this year so far. Last week in Dubai she ran into her doubles partner Aryna Sabalenka who had one of her consistent hitting days and there is little any player on tour can do against the Belarussian if she is on song.
This week Mertens has no such threat on her immediate horizon and could make hay if her level is solid. I am backing Mertens to win quarter 3 at 5/1 with Bet365.
The fourth quarter is lacking in top level star talent, but there is one player I feel is making an effort to close the gap between herself and the top level of the game and that is Kiki Bertens. The Netherlander is ranked as a top 10 player, but her game currently thrives on consistency which will only get her so far.
When I have watched her this season Bertens looks fitter than ever, giving passing similarities to the muscular power of Angelique Kerber who was known for running down balls and building the points into an attacking opportunities. With Kerber on the decline there is an opening for a player to revisit the German’s formula for success and I think that player could be Bertens.
I’m unsure that Bertens has the easy ability to hit winners that Kerber has, but she will give it a good shot. Her results so far in 2020 have impressed with a title in St Petersburg being the highlight, as well as a respectable round of 16 in Australia.
The obvious challenger to Bertens chances will be Aryna Sabalenka. The Belarussian has been propelled into the de-facto 2nd seeding position left by Simona Halep’s withdrawal from this tournament.
Whilst Sabalenka impressed last week in Dubai, one thing that is not so impressive is her rather one sided career head-to-head with Bertens, who leads their series 5-2.
Bertens is given a meatier price than other top seeded players and I think that may represent value this week. I back Bertens to win quarter 4 at 10/3 with Bet365.