British No 3 Harriet Dart begins the first port of call in her quest to reach the main draw of the Australian Open in the “weird” surroundings over 7,000 miles away from Melbourne Park in Dubai on Sunday.
Qualifying for the delayed opening grand slam of 2021 has been moved to the Middle East due to the coronavirus pandemic. While 128 women will vie for the 16 qualifying spots on offer at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium and Complex, the same-sized men’s field head to Doha for their qualifying event from January 10 to 13.
While it presents a unique prospect for the 256 players, not least for the 20 Australian players who will spend 15 hours on a plane travelling to the United Arab Emirates just to attempt to qualify for their home slam, Dart has expressed gratitude and an overwhelming feeling of motivation for the event.
“It’s going to be a weird one, playing a grand slam qualifier in another country - there’s a first time for everything,” Dart told Telegraph Sport. “But it’s a lot better to play at a grand slam, than not being there. I’m just excited to get back out there.”
Dart is becoming more accustomed to the regular coronavirus tests, the periods of isolation in hotel rooms while waiting for the results of PCR tests and the bubble life that goes hand-in-hand with tournaments during the pandemic having played in Paris, Prague and Turkey over the past few months.
“I like to keep busy in the hotel rooms. There’s only so much Netflix you can watch. I’ll do core circuits or use parts of the room like a chair to do some exercises. It’s about being efficient with your time and not lying in your bed all day, because that’s not good for anyone.”
With the US Open deciding to scrap qualifying for the first major to resume during the pandemic last August, Dart, then ranked 146 in the world, narrowly missed out on a place at Flushing Meadow.
Instead, she had to make do with a quickly-arranged 125k WTA event in Prague on her least preferred clay surface.
“I love New York. I have family out there so especially look forward to that time of year,” she said. “I ended up being one out of the main draw so that was definitely tough, but playing in Prague gave me an opportunity from a prize money and points perspective. It’s motivated me really more to get myself into a position where I will be the main draw of events in future.”
Dart has reached the main draw via qualifying at three of the past six grand slam events, most recently at the 2020 Australian Open where she suffered a battling second-round defeat to 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep.
Coming through qualifying can provide players with confidence and momentum heading into the main-draw event, something qualifiers will be without this year given the first-round will not get underway in Melbourne until 26 days later on February 8.
Instead, the 32 players who win through will head straight to Australia to join a bio-secure bubble in the lead up to the tournament. Players will be allowed out of their rooms for five hours a day to practice with one other player during the first week of the 14-day quarantine period, increasing to two in the second week.
“Naturally, you think a little bit about the possibility of getting to Australia. But I have to win three tough matches to be in that position.
“If  taught me anything, it's to relax a lot more and enjoy life. I’m usually a tick off a to-do list sort of people. But [last] year it’s made me realise how much you do have to go with the flow and that not everything is in your control.”
Other players taking part in qualifying in Dubai include former world No 5 and Australian Open 2014 semi-finalist Eugenie Bouchard and US Open 2020 quarter-finalist Tsvetana Pironkova.
Dart, at world No 150, is joined by three other British compatriots in Samatha Murray Sharan, Naiktha Bains and Francesca Jones.