DUBAI (AFP) - Holder Simona Halep is back to head a field at the Dubai Tennis Championships which has been seriously weakened by the late withdrawals of Serena Williams and Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber.
What had looked to be a strong start to the post-Melbourne season began deteriorating last week as the pull-outs due to various aliments and injuries mounted prior to Monday's first day at the Aviation Club.
In addition to world No. 1 Williams and Germany's Kerber, other absentees include 2012 champion Agnieszka Radwanska, Russian star Maria Sharapova and 2011 winner Caroline Wozniacki.
Halep, second-seeded Garbine Muguruza, her fellow Spaniard Carla Suarez Navarro and No. 4 Petra Kvitova all have byes into the second round.
Due to late decisions and changes of heart, Halep, Kvitova and Karolina Pliskova all needed wild cards to get into the draw.
The presence of Halep was a particularly close call, with the Romanian originally planning to miss the outdoor hard-court tournament to have surgery on her nose. At the time she made the decision in the wake of a first-round loss at the Australian Open to Chinese qualifier Zhang Shuai, the choice seemed logical.
But a Fed Cup win this month over Kvitova suddenly gave Halep hope and she has now postponed her procedure indefinitely. The world No. 3 said that she felt fine during the Fed Cup, so why bother to pause.
Williams, whose pull-out was her third in four years on short notice in Dubai, was most recently seen on an American television shopping network this week selling US$45 (S$63) cardigans to her fans.
"I'm disappointed to have to withdraw from the Dubai Tennis Championships," she said in a statement. "I have come down with the flu and I am not at 100 per cent, so I need to take this time to recuperate."
Williams last appeared at the tournament in a semi-final two years ago, losing to Alize Cornet.
Kerber, who beat Williams for the Australian Open title in a major shock, said: "I am very sad to announce that I have to withdraw from this great tournament in Dubai due to an injury of my right upper thigh."
Halep will await a second-round opponent as former No .1 Ana Ivanovic faces Australian Daria Gavrilova while Wimbledon finalist Muguruza will play the winner of a match between a qualifier and Elina Svitolina of the Ukraine.
Rising Swiss Belinda Bencic takes the fifth seeding ahead of last year's finalist Pliskova.
Italy's US Open finalist Roberta Vinci and Dubai-based Russian Svetlana Kuznetsova round out the seeds.