A near-capacity crowd, including football legend Diego Maradona , was left dumbfounded following the withdrawal of World No 1 Serena Williams  from the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships  just 30 minutes before she was due to take on Marion Bartoli on Wednesday night.
It’s the second successive blow for the tournament following world number two Victoria Azarenka’s withdrawal from the tournament on Tuesday due to a foot injury.
Williams, the US Open, Wimbledon and Olympic champion, appeared at a hurriedly arranged press conference to say she was “sad to miss out on a tournament” she had targeted as one of her goals for the year.
The 31-year-old later came out on centre court, at which Dubai sports ambassador Maradona was in the royal box, and apologised to the crowd for being forced to pull out at the last minute.
“I’ve been working very hard and fighting really hard and injuries happen,” she told the crowd.
“I am making a promise and I will be here 100 per cent next year.”
Tournament director Salah Tahlak said: “We were looking forward to seeing Serena play, and are disappointed that this injury has ruled her out. We wish her a speedy recovery and look forward to hopefully seeing her back in Dubai next year.”
“We are disappointed that Serena Williams will not be playing in Dubai this year,” said Colm McLoughlin, executive vice-chairman of tournament owners and organisers Dubai Duty Free.
“However, we are looking forward to watching defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska and Grand Slam winners Petra Kvitova, Ana Ivanovic and Samantha Stosur in action.”
Officials made hectic arrangements to re-schedule matches on centre court by fitting in a doubles match between Su-Wei Hsieh and Liezel Huber versus Bethanie Mattek-Sands and India’s Sania Mirza.
At the press conference earlier, Serena was apologetic.
“I’ve just had some back problems the past couple weeks. They haven’t got better. I thought they would get better as the week went on, but they didn’t. I don’t want to keep pushing it [my back] and make it worse,” the American said.
With her next tournament set to be the Miami Open on March 18, Williams insisted she was confident of recovering and making a comeback to defend her No 1 ranking that she is assured of keeping until at least March 31. “My next tournament is actually in Miami. I have a lot of time and I think that’s good, to get back and to get better. I’ll be fine.”