Dubai: Australian Open winner Sofia Kenin and two former champions were among the major casualties on the second day of the Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open.
Kenin, the latest Grand Slam champion after her three-set win against Garbine Muguruza in Melbourne earlier this month, surrendered to 20-year-old fast-rising Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in the biggest upset of the day.
Earlier, defending champion Belinda Bencic and former two-time winner Elina Svitolina both failed to survive the opening round rigours.
Bencic, who occupies a career-high No. 4 this week, went down in three sets 1-6, 6-1, 6-1 by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, while Svitolina caved in to a 6-2, 6-1 defeat at the hands of American qualifier, Jennifer Brady.
Rybakina has been one of the fastest improving youngsters on the WTA.
A year ago, the Kazakh girl was ranked No. 192.
Last week, she fell to Belgian Kiki Bertens in the St Petersburg final but rose to a career-high No. 19. The 20-year-old has had a solid start to the season while winning the Hobart International and ending runner-up at the Shenzhen Open in January.
“I am happy that all my hard work is paying off,” Rybakina said.
“To be honest, I wasn’t nervous at all because I knew it was going to be tough. Actually I told myself it’s good practice and I didn’t expect that I would win. I mean, I tried to do my best, but I was not nervous,” she added.
Kenin had the advantage with an early break, but Rybakina broke back in the tenth to push the set into a tie-break, which Kenin went on to dominate and win 7-2.
In the second, the 20-year-old underdog opened her shots and this saw Rybakina getting two successive breaks in the seventh and ninth games to draw level with a 6-3 score.
In the deciding third, Rybakina got the crucial breakthrough in the eighth after which she served out set and match in a little over two hours on centre court.
“I believed that I could win. I didn’t think that she had just won the Australian Open because I know that now everyone can beat anyone. I just didn’t think about this,” Rybakina said.
Earlier in the afternoon session, Bencic had seemed to be on the way to an easy victory as she dominated the first set, beginning the match by winning an astonishing 19 consecutive points. But Pavlyuchenkova dug in deep to turn the match around, using her greater strength to unsettle her opponent.
After dropping her serve to begin the second set, Pavlyuchenkova swept the next six games to level the match and then took the first three games of the third set to put herself firmly in control.
“She’s the defending champion and I had to be at my best today,” Pavlyuchenkova related.
“Despite being 0-5 down in that first set I tried to stay positive, worked really hard and kept fighting for every point,” she added.
Bencic was left seeking answers.
“I’m trying to analyse what went wrong or what was the turning point. Yeah, I think sometimes it’s even too dangerous when you start very well, then just tennis turns it around. At this point I still don’t know what happened and I am still looking for an answer,” the Swiss admitted.
For American Brady, this was her second career top-10 win following her smooth victory over world No. 1 Ashleigh Barty at the Brisbane International last month.
“I think I served pretty well throughout the whole match. I started off strong on the serve, was able to apply pressure on the return games. I think just from the beginning she may have felt my presence. I was happy with the way I performed,” Brady reflected.
Brady, one of six players who came through the qualifiers was pleased with the extra court presence during the past three days. “It always helps. Every match you play, you get more used to the conditions, the court, the balls. You start to get in that competitive match mode,” Brady admitted.
“It’s great to obviously have four matches under my belt going into the second round. I think it’s pretty good,” she added.
Results on Day Two at the Dubai Duty Free Women’s Open, on Tuesday: Katerina Siniakova bt Karolina Muchova 6-4, 4-6, 6-0; Jennifer Brady bt Elina Svitolina 6-2, 6-1; Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova bt Belinda Bencic 1-6, 6-1, 6-1; Kristina Mladenovic bt Aliaksandra Sasnovich 6-4, 6-3; Veronika Kudermetova bt Dayana Yastremska 5-7, 6-3, 7-6; Elena Rybakina bt Sofia Kenin 6-7, 6-3, 6-3; Maria Sakkari vs Aryna Sabalenka; Petra Martic bt Su-Wei Hsieh 6-4, 6-3; Anett Kontaveit bt Sorana Cirstea 6-1, 6-3; Aryna Sabalenka vs Maria Sakkari *****.