Seles primed to defend her Qatar title

American Monica Seles was itching to launch her campaign for a second successive WTA Qatar Open title this week in this highly strung city which hosts one of the biggest American airbases in the Persian Gulf.
Al-Udeid air base – just a few kilometres away from the Khalifa Tennis Complex – is likely to be the nerve centre of any American-led attack on Iraq.

But short of a war, nothing seems to have the potential to deter the top seeded Seles, ranked No 9 in the world, from strutting her stuff in the 170,000-dollar event which also features another American great, Martina Navratilova, in the doubles.

Seles was an early bird in Doha after a small break in Dubai following her recent three-set loss to compatriot Lindsay Davenport in the final of the Tokyo Pan-Pacific Open.

“I’m not worried about the war. I’m here to play tennis and defend my title,” said Seles.

Navratilova was expected to fly in early Sunday. Importantly, the US embassy in Doha has already issued an advisory appealing to all Americans here to be ready to leave at short notice.

Standing between the business-like Seles and an encore are the likes of second seed Russian Anastasia Myskina, Magdalena Maleeva of Bulgaria and last year’s runner-up Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand.

Fading stars Frenchwoman Mary Pierce, a two-time Grand Slam winner, and 1994 Wimbledon champion Conchita Martinez of Spain will also be trying their luck in what happens to be the third edition of the tournament. The now-retired Martina Hingis lifted the maiden trophy in 2001.

Nine-time Grand Slam winner Seles will be bidding to add to her bulging kitty of 53 singles titles and it looks like the draw will aid the American in her designs. She has a clear path right up to the quarter-finals where, if the formbook is not ruffled, Martinez will be waiting for her.

Exciting tennis can be expected from the fast improving Myskina who reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open. Last year, the 22-year-old Russian, ranked No 11, fell in the last eight and will be eager to make amends.

She is likely to meet Pierce as early as in the second round.

Pierce played here but once, in the inaugural tournament, and crashed out in the opening round while 1996 Wimbledon champion Martinez will be seen in action for the first time.

Seles named Tanasugarn and Myskina as the players to watch out for. The year started on a bleak note for third-seed Bulgarian Maleeva with an Australian Open third round loss and a second round upset in Tokyo and she will be looking to add to her collection of nine singles titles.

The tournament also boasts two of the youngest winners on the Tour last year in Angelique Widjaja of Indonesia and Russian Dinara Safina. Hard-hitting Uzbek Iroda Tulyaganova is just one of the several players in the 32-woman field capable of causing a flutter or two and giving the favourites a run for their money.

The winner goes home 27,000 dollar richer while the runner-up gets 14,500 dollars for her efforts.