Karolina Pliskova's first observations when asked about the field for the inaugural Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open was to say it looks “incredibly tough” and that she expects there to be plenty of “exciting matches”.
Pliskova made those comments before the draw was made, and following Saturday's ceremony at The Galleria, it's unlikely the Czech would have changed her tune.
That is because she has been drawn to face two-time Grand Slam champion, and fellow former world No 1, Garbine Muguruza in what is undoubtedly the blockbuster match-up of the first round.
Had this tournament made its debut 12 months ago, these two titans of the WTA Tour would have been kept well apart: Pliskova was ranked world No 3 and Muguruza was just three places lower. Now, neither player is among the top eight seeds in Abu Dhabi, so both were vulnerable to face anyone in the draw including, as it proved, each other.
Muguruza's on-court struggles have been well-documented. The Spaniard's form has nosedived since winning the WTA Tour Finals in 2021; she has lost her first four matches of this year and has plummeted to 82 in the rankings.
Pliskova, meanwhile, has more been a victim of professional tennis' ranking points system. The Czech, who reached the Wimbledon final in 2021, was unable to defend any of those points after the tournament was stripped of them for banning Russian and Belarusian players.
Her ranking then hit another setback with a second-round exit at the Cincinnati Open having made the semi-finals the previous year.
A second successive quarter-final appearance at the US Open meant Pliskova didn't lose any more ground, but a first-round defeat at the Guadalajara Open saw her slump to 32nd, where she started this season.
Confirmed players for 2023 Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open
At least the system has worked in her favour so far this year. An encouraging run to the quarter-finals of the Australian Open – she missed the Grand Slam event last year – has seen Pliskova surge back up to 20th and trending in the right direction.
“At the beginning of the year, it’s tough but super important because if you start by losing two or three matches then it can be difficult to gain confidence during the year when everyone is playing better and growing stronger,” Pliskova told The National.
“I played some good tennis [in Australia]. A bit disappointed about the quarter-final but overall my level is there. Of course, there are some things to improve to become more solid but overall the situation is quite good.”
Should Pliskova get past Muguruza – she has beaten the Spaniard in nine of their 11 meetings – then it does not get any easier, with a second-round clash against Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina.
The Kazakh world No 10 had the opportunity to make it two major titles from two finals but fell just short to Aryna Sabalenka in an Australian Open thriller last month.
Pliskova knows all too well about the heartbreak of Grand Slam final defeats. Twice the 30-year-old has been on the cusp of a major trophy, twice she has been on the losing side of three-set losses, her defeat to Ash Barty in 2021 coming almost five years after narrowly going down to Angelique Kerber at the US Open. Unsurprisingly, it remains the ultimate ambition.
“In my situation and at my age, after achieving what I have so far and what I have won, the goal remains the same: to win a Slam,” Pliskova said. “I was close again last year, reaching the final at Wimbledon. I seem to get close but still so far.”
There is plenty of tennis to be played before Pliskova gets another crack at a major trophy, so the next 16 weeks until the French Open is all about establishing her best form, starting in Abu Dhabi.
The 500-level tournament is a new addition to the calendar and Pliskova is pleased to see the WTA expanding into new places. The capital did host a one-off event in January 2021 to help with scheduling issues during the pandemic, where Pliskova was eliminated in the second round.
“It was a tough start to the year, not playing really well, so I hope to play a bit better [this time],” Pliskova said. “As a player, I’ve been travelling since I was 15, and to go to the same places you do like it, but you also want to see some new places.
“For this tournament, being in Abu Dhabi is great because then we go to Doha then Dubai, so it’s all quite near. These three tournaments in a row is a great plan.”