210107 Sofia Kenin
Sofia Kenin (file). Image Credit: AP

Dubai: Top seeded Sofia Kenin of the United States led the march of the top four into the second round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre, on Thursday.

Kenin had to grind her way through a tough first set before packing off Chinese qualifier Yang Zhaoxuan 7-6 (4), 6-2 and earn the right to face Belgium’s Kirsten Flipkens in their second round.

World No 4 Kenin — the 2020 WTA Player of the Year — needed over an hour to finally polish off the opening frame against Yang, a former top-20 doubles player who is currently ranked World No. 789 in singles and is contesting her first singles event since October of 2019.

The American’s next opponent Flipkens is a former top-15 player, who had come through with an equally well-contested three-set opener against Germany’s Laura Siegemund on the opening day to ensure her place against the reigning Australian Open champion.

The second seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine also booked her spot in the second round after easing past Jessica Pegula of the United States 6-4, 6-3.

“I really, really enjoyed being out there,” Svitolina said after her late night match.

“The conditions were not easy today, with the wind going around the court and changing all the time, so I tried to really stay focused on what I had to do on the court. In the end, there were no ups and downs and it was quite a solid performance from me for the first match,” she added.

The current World No 5 and a two-time champion in Dubai, Svitolina was up against her 63rd-ranked American opponent for the first time. But, the Ukrainian broke Pegual’s service on three occasions to wrap up an 80-minute win over the hard-hitting American.

“[There are] still a few things that I have to improve for the next match and to try to get better. But for the start, I think it definitely was a good match,” Svitolina admitted.

“I will try to get on the court tomorrow, to work on a few things here and there, to be even better. For me, every match is like a test, where I try to really do everything that I practised, and what I really worked on. So I try to be just focused on every point and see how it goes,” she added.

Third seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic adjusted successfully to a late twist to set aside lucky loser Despina Papamichail of Greece 6-2, 7-6 (4).

World No 6 Pliskova was slated to play Sorana Cirstea of Romania when the day began, but Cirstea — a winner at the year-ending Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge in the first half of December — unfortunately had to withdraw due to an abdominal injury prior to the match.

Papamichail moved into the draw in Cirstea’s place, allowing the 27-year-old Greek to make her WTA main draw debut. The former World No 1, though, remained unfazed by the substitution, staving off a strong second-set surge from the Greek to emerge victorious after 79 minutes of play.

“Of course, I prepared for something, but I still had a couple of hours just to change my feeling about that match,” Pliskova related.

“No matter who was there, I wanted to play the best I can,” she added.

Also advancing to the second round was fourth seed and World No 10 Aryna Sabalenka as she extended her winning streak to ten consecutive matches with a 7-6 (5), 6-2 win over Polona Hercog.

The Belarusian will now face Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic in the second round.

Sabalenka had ended 2020 on a high, winning her final nine matches of the year to capture back-to-back titles in Ostrava and Linz. Sabalenka’s end-of-season run had clinched her a spot in the year-end top-10 of the WTA Singles Rankings for the first time in her career.

Fourth-seeded Sabalenka and Hercog were even at 1-1 during previous clashes. Sabalenka had beaten Hercog in straight sets in Lugano, but Hercog had got her revenge with a straight-set victory just two weeks later in Istanbul.

Another familiar face going through to the second round was 2020 Dubai Open runner-up Elena Rybakina as she posted a 6-1, 6-3 victory Lucrezia Stefanini earlier in the morning.

The lanky Ukrainian hurried through the opening set to win 6-1, only to see her No 394-ranked opponent from Italy break back early and level at 3-3 in the second set. But the 21-year-old Ukrainian was right back notching up another couple of breaks to win 6-3 in exactly an hour.


[6] Elena Rybakina bt Lucrezia Stefanini 6-1, 6-3; [4] Aryna Sabalenka bt Polona Hercog 7-6 (5), 6-2; [1] Sofia Kenin bt [Q] Yang Zhaoxuan 7-6 (4), 6-3; Sara Sorribes Tormo bt Nadia Podoroska 6-3, 6-3; Hsieh Su-Wei bt [8] Marketa Vondrousova 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (3); Wang Xiyu bt Arantxa Rus 6-3, 3-6, 6-4; Marta Kostyuk bt [Q] Lucie Hradecka 6-2, 6-4; [Q] Kateryna Bondarenko bt Wang Yafan 6-3, 2-6, 6-3; Aliaksandra Sasnovich bt [Q] Anna Bondar 6-2, 6-3; [Q] Bianca Turati bt Yaroslava Shvedova 6-1, 6-2; [5] Garbiñe Muguruza bt Kristina Mladenovic 6-2, 6-4; [3] Karolina Pliskova bt Despina Papamichail 6-2, 7-6 (4); [2] Elina Svitolina bt Jessica Pegula 6-4, 6-3; Alizé Cornet bt Valentini Grammatikopoulou 6-2, 6-2; Tamara Zidansek bt [11] Jennifer Brady 0-6, 6-3, 6-4; Heather Watson bt [LL] Jodie Burrage 4-6, 6-2, 7-5; [Q] Anastasia Gasanova bt Mona Barthel 6-2, 6-4; [12] Karolina Muchova bt Danka Kovinic 6-4, 6-1.