Dubai: Elena Rybakina overcame a second set fightback by Saisai Zheng to reach the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Monday, winning 6-0, 6-4, and she was joined there by Madison Keys, who marked her Dubai debut by taking just 64 minutes to claim a stunning 6-1, 6-1 victory over qualifier En-Shuo Liang.
Rybakina enjoyed an incredible start to last season, reaching four finals in her first five tournaments and winning Hobart before her momentum was halted by the COVID pandemic. She came desperately close to claiming the Dubai title, upsetting recently crowned Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and world No. 3 Karolina Pliskova to reach the final, where in one of the most thrilling contests ever played on the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium centre court she came within two points of victory against Simona Halep in a nail-biting final set tiebreak.
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“Elena Rybakina’s performances during last year were outstanding,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice-Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “It was interesting to see such a talented new face competing so well against such formidable opposition, and we welcome her back and wish her well.”
The No. 14 seed made a near-perfect start against Zheng, who had not won a match since reaching the quarter-finals in Doha more than a year ago. After Doha, she did not compete again until the end of January, since when she has now suffered defeat in all six matches she has played.
After giving up just five points on serve in the opening set, Rybakina appeared to be coasting to a comfortable victory as she broke to lead 3-1 in the second. But her opponent then began to offer a solid challenge and Rybakina was relieved to close out the match in straight sets.
“Overall, I thought I played not a bad match,” said Rybakina. “I’m happy to come here again. It’s a pity there are not the crowd here like before, but I’ll try to do my best this week.”
Keys tested positive for COVID-19 in January and, instead of flying to compete at the Australian Open, she was forced to self-isolate at home. As a result, the only tournament she has competed in since playing at the French Open in September is last week’s Doha event, where she defeated 2019 Dubai champion Belinda Bencic before falling in the second round to Maria Sakkari.
There were no signs of rust as she swept past Liang, and although she faced seven break points she fought off every one to secure a comfortable victory.
“I feel good about today,” said Keys. “I played a really clean first set, and in the second set I had some break points against me but I thought I handled them pretty well and kept the momentum. It’s been tough. I definitely feel a little bit behind compared to everyone else, but I know if I keep working at what I’ve been practising and try and implement that in matches then more matches will come.”
In other first round matches, 12th seed Marketa Vondrousova defeated qualifier Ana Bogdan 6-4. 6-4, 15th seed Anett Kontaveit overwhelmed Timea Babos 6-2, 6-1 in just 57 minutes, Jessica Pegula defeated Yaroslava Shvedova 6-2, 6-1, and tournament wild card and former junior world No. 1 Anastasia Potapova beat Laura Siegemund 6-3, 6-2.
“We have enjoyed seeing our 2020 finalist, Elena Rybakina, return to Dubai and her performance today suggests that she could be equally successful this year as she bids once again for the title,” said Tournament Director Salah Tahlak. “Madison Keys has made an impressive debut today, and the former US Open finalist is also certain to be a strong contender for the title.”
The WTA 1000 tournament continues until March 13 and then will be followed by the men’s ATP event, headed by reigning US Open champion and world No. four Dominic Thiem.