Abu Dhabi will host a brand new tournament that will kickstart the 2021 WTA Tour season, organisers announced on Saturday.
Taking place January 5-13 at Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre, the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open will provide players an opportunity to prepare for the Australian Open. The qualifying rounds for the season's first Grand Slam will be held in Dubai from January 10-13.
“We are delighted to welcome to Abu Dhabi the WTA’s 2021 kick off event, the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open," Aref Al Awani, general secretary of Abu Dhabi Sports Council, said. "Abu Dhabi is a global capital of world sport and the presence of top tennis players from around the world at this time only strengthens that position and reinforces our esteemed reputation.”
From Abu Dhabi, the WTA circuit will head Down Under, where two tournaments will be held concurrently in Melbourne Park from January 31 to February 7. The time between the Abu Dhabi and Melbourne events will allow the players and their teams to undergo the mandatory two-week quarantine period.
With international travel currently limited to Australia, Tennis Australia designated Dubai as one of their charter flight hubs, permitting players competing in the UAE to fly into the country. Los Angeles and Singapore are the other two designated hubs.
The Australian Open – the only major this year not to be affected in any way by the coronavirus pandemic – will then begin on February 8, with the women's final schedule for February 20.
During the second week of the Australian Open, another smaller WTA tournament will be held, giving players who failed to qualify another opportunity for competitive action.
“We are excited to announce the first swing of tournaments representing the opening weeks of the 2021 WTA season, all of which will operate in an environment that puts health and safety at the forefront," Steve Simon, WTA Chairman and CEO, said.
"We want to express our sincere appreciation for the cooperation between key tennis stakeholders and organisations, along with the local health authorities who have been vital in getting us to this point. The hard work will continue as we look further ahead into 2021 to ensure a safe and robust calendar.”
Abu Dhabi's addition to the WTA calendar is testament to both the city's capacity to host top-level tennis tournaments and the UAE's robust approach to tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
Since 2009, many of the world's best male players, including regular visitors Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, have descended on the capital to compete in the pre-season Mubadala World Tennis Championships. The most recent three editions also featured one-off women's matches – the first two starring Serena Williams and the third headlined by Maria Sharapova.
Meanwhile, the UAE's handling of the pandemic – with expansive nationwide testing, which ranks the country among the top for testing per capita, and vigilant measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus – has instilled confidence that the nation is fully equipped to host international sports events.
Already this year, the UFC have twice set up camp in Abu Dhabi for two hugely successful Fight Island series and is expected to return for a third in January, while cricket's Indian Premier League was relocated to the UAE.
Details regarding the logistics of hosting the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open are yet to emerge, so whether the tournament will be placed in a bio-secure "bubble" or will allow a limited number fans remains to be seen. Earlier this month, the Abu Dhabi Emergency Crisis and Disasters Committee announced that soon “all economic, tourism, cultural and entertainment activities” would resume, suggesting spectators inside the stadium could be a possibility.
Abu Dhabi's inclusion on the WTA Tour comes after a complete rebrand by the governing body of women's tennis aimed at driving the sport into a new era. Among the most significant changes is a simplified numerical naming system for WTA tournaments, which is now similar to the ATP's.
The Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open will be a WTA 500 event, placing it behind only the four Grand Slams and a select few WTA 1000 tournaments in terms of importance.
While the lineup for Abu Dhabi is yet to be announced, it will expect to welcome many of the world's top players due to the ranking points on offer and its status as the season-opener, not to mention the unique set of circumstances of playing and travelling during the pandemic.
The WTA Tour was severely disrupted by the coronavirus this year, even more so than the ATP Tour, as professional tennis went into lockdown between March and August. Following the rescheduled French Open at the start of October, the WTA hosted just two more tournaments and cancelled the season-ending Finals. By comparison, the ATP held a further 10 events after Roland Garros.