Former champions Ostapenko and Svitolina up and running at Dubai Tennis Championships

The only former winners in the 2024 draw are safely through to the second round

Jelena Ostapenko continued her strong start to the season by reaching the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Getty Images
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The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships may be stacked with the best players in the world, who between them have won countless titles, but there are only two former champions in the field.

Both of those players began their bids for more Dubai glory on Monday and came through relatively unscathed. Jelena Ostapenko, winner here in 2022, needed three sets to get past qualifier Xiyu Wang, before two-time winner Elina Svitolina defeated fellow Ukrainian Anhelina Kalinina.

Ostapenko, 26, is aiming to continue her impressive start to the season; the Latvian has collected two trophies already and after Monday’s victory is level with Abu Dhabi champion Elena Rybakina for most match wins this year with 15.

In fact, the former French Open winner has only lost to one player this season, coming up short on all three occasions she has faced Victoria Azarenka. Ostapenko can breathe a sigh of relief that the Belarusian is in the opposite end of the draw, so they can only meet in the final. Azarenka, incidentally, faces fourth seed Rybakina in the second round on Tuesday.

When she’s in this form, Ostapenko is a problem for any player, and the ninth seed was ultimately too strong for world No 64 Wang, despite a late wobble towards the end of the first set. That opened the door for Wang to take a shock one-set lead, but Ostapenko quickly regrouped to clinch a 5-7, 6-2, 6-3 victory.

So in the zone was Ostapenko by the end of the match, she didn’t even realise she’d won and was convinced there was at least another game to go.

“I miscounted the score, first time I think in my life! It's a good thing. I thought to continue the match, but it was over, so it's good for me,” said Ostapenko, who will play Swiss wildcard Lulu Sun in the second round.

“It was a really tough match. She's a great player, very talented, especially being lefty with a big serve. It was not easy with the wind today. I managed to win. That's what matters.”

Ostapenko burst on to the scene in 2017 when she won the French Open as a 19-year-old, becoming the first unseeded player to win the Grand Slam tournament in 84 years. Since then, her career has had its highs and lows; she’s won eight titles but also spent time outside the top 40.

Now back inside the top 10, the world No 9 said her positive form has given her sky-high confidence, allowing her to maintain belief in tough moments, like losing the first set to Wang.

“Today I was not really playing my best game, but I was trying to find it and play every point,” she said. “Even when it didn't go my way, I was just trying to find my game – not like just going through motions and missing even more. Today in very tough conditions I managed to win. I feel like that's what is helping to build the confidence.”

Following Ostapenko on the main stadium court in Monday’s first evening match, Svitolina advanced to the second round and a meeting with Germany’s Tatjana Maria by beating compatriot Kalinina 6-3, 7-6.

Svitolina, a back-to-back winner in Dubai in 2017 and 2018, is competing in her first full season on the WTA Tour having returned last April following the birth of her daughter Skai in October 2022. The Ukrainian has made remarkably swift progress, quickly returning to the top 20, and amid a strong start to the season will have designs on another deep run in Dubai.

"I have so many great memories here, winning here twice, winning my first big title which got me into the top 10 – lots of special moments for me," Svitolina, 29, said. "I'm really happy to be back on this court again and to experience the win."

Tuesday will see the start of the tournament for many of the world's best players. The top eight seeds all received first-round byes, so world No 1 Iga Swiatek, Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka, US Open champion Coco Gauff, and fourth seed Elena Rybakina, who won the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open title earlier this month, will all be in action.

Updated: February 19, 2024, 5:20 PM