Deep into her first match of the new season, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova came to the slow realisation that she did not actually have the faintest idea of the score. After holding serve for 6-5 against Ons Jabeur, the Russian tennis player was preparing to serve again when the umpire noted that the game was over. As Pavlyuchenkova moved back towards her chair, she gasped: “Are we still in the first set? I’m completely lost. Oh my God!”
She had fair reason to be confused. Like so many of her colleagues, Pavlyuchenkova has simply not played many matches in recent times. Tuesday marked her return to competition for the first time since her departure from Roland Garros on 2 October. Since she opted not to travel to the US Open in August and the WTA’s autumn swing, which is mostly held in China, was scuppered once the country decided that it would not authorise international sporting events in 2020, she has competed in only four tournaments over the past 13 months.
It is in this context that the WTA Abu Dhabi tournament, a new event that has acquired a tournament licence for only one year, was created. Its stated existence is simply to allow WTA players the opportunity to compete, earn money and execute their jobs before they fly to Australia for the delayed first slam of the year. There are no crowds to energise competitors and the prize money of $565,530 is significantly less than a total purse of $1,434,900 boasted by the Brisbane tournament this time last year.
As in other sports that have seen all frills stripped down during the pandemic, the spectacle of only the athletes is a sight in itself. Their competitiveness and desire has endured, a reminder that they play only for themselves.
The first victor of the 2021 season was 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. As Osaka rose to stratospheric heights, Kasatkina’s ranking has nosedived. Over the past six months, it has been difficult to maintain any rhythm as she tries to return towards the top of the sport.
“Honestly, I was a bit disappointed that we had just very few tournaments at the end of the season because I started to feel really good,” she said. “I was trying to do my best not to lose this feeling through this quite long pre-season again.”
The challenges for Europeans, who often spend their pre-season on warmer shores, also became clear as they have to immediately adjust to the warm conditions ahead after months of training at home in winter. “It’s a little bit difficult,” said Anett Kontaveit of Estonia. “We’ve been practising for so long and then suddenly we’re here and we have a few days to get used to it. I was practising in Estonia indoors for two, three months. It’s definitely different going outside and you have a few days then straight into competition.”
After spending her long pre-season in Tallinn, where temperatures average -2°C in December, her hand was soon blistered in Abu Dhabi. “The air here is so dry and I’ve been in Estonia for so long that my skin just wasn’t used to it in the beginning,” she said. It did not help her as the world No 23 fell to Veronika Kudermetova, ranked 46th.
Between the small and large obstacles in this current normal, the most successful male and female players of this unique period will be those who are flexible enough to adapt to all the challenges ahead and to energise themselves now that they can no longer rely on crowds to spark them into life.
They are trying. Asked if it still feels like she is playing in an Arab country without the usual Arab crowds roaring her name, Jabeur noted her futile wish that fans would be allowed to enter by the end of the tournament. Then the Tunisian shrugged. “I see Abu Dhabi on [the court]. So I remember that I’m here in Abu Dhabi.” That should be enough.