Serena Williams, who captured her 19th Grand Slam title at the Australian Open last month while struggling with a persistent virus, has withdrawn from the Dubai Open, apparently suffering from the same ailment.
Williams’ achievement in those difficult circumstances in Melbourne was particularly remarkable, but the cost may be high and has been causing concern about the 33-year-old’s long-term health.
She has been suffering from a nagging cough since that triumph and was forced to sit out the second day of the United States' 4-1 FedCup win over Argentina in Buenos Aires last weekend.
The world number one made it clear at the start of the year that she must restrict her schedule if she is to have a chance of winning the three more Grand Slam titles needed to reach Steffi Graf’s open era record of 22 - and her Dubai pull-out underlines her determination to do this.
It is, however, the second time in three years that Williams has pulled out of the popular and lucrative Middle East tournament, something which may not help the American’s image in this region, especially as she has also failed to win it in four attempts.
It may, though, give her a better chance of doing well at her next tournament, Indian Wells, early in March, something of unusual significance for her and for her sister Venus Williams.
It will be the first time either Williams sister has returned to Indian Wells since they boycotted the tournament after their hostile treatment by the crowd 14 years ago.
Serena’s absence in Dubai allows Venus to squeeze into the top eight seeds, something which may help her defence of a title which made her the tournament’s first unseeded champion.
“Serena’s doing what’s best for her,” said Venus. “She’s been sick for a while and all the travelling can have an affect on you. There comes a time when you need to do something about it.”
“I know what it can be like (to be unwell),” added Venus, who has had chronic health problems in recent seasons. “It builds character - and I have had to build a lot of character in the last few years.”
She could have a quarter-final with Ana Ivanovic, the fourth-seeded former French Open champion, and if she were to survive that, a semi-final with Petra Kvitova, the second-seeded Wimbledon champion, would be a possibility.
“Happily I’m feeling good right now, I’ve only lost once this year,” the 34-year-old champion said. “I’ve been playing well and I’m looking forward to playing even better.”
The player stepping into Serena’s shoes as top seed is Simona Halep, the French Open runner-up from Rumania, and among the other frontline contenders are Caroline Wozniacki, the third-seeded Dane, and Agnieszka Radwanska, the fifth-seeded Pole, both of whom are former winners of the Dubai title.
Canada's Eugenie Bouchard, a wildcard entry, has also withdrawn, with arn arm injury.
Top eight seeds:
1, Simona Halep (ROM), 2, Petra Kvtiova (CZE), 3, Caroline Wozniacki (DEN), 4, Ana Ivanovic (SRB), 5, Agnieszka Radwanska (POL), 6, Ekaterina Makarova (RUS), 7, Angelique Kerber (GER), 8, Venus Williams (USA)
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