DUBAI 19 February 2020: Defending champion Belinda Bencic, former two-time winner Elina Svitolina and Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin all failed to survive the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday.
Bencic, who this week is ranked at a career-high number four, was defeated 1-6 6-1 6-1 by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Svitolina fell 6-2 6-1 against qualifier Jennifer Brady and Kenin was beaten 6-7 (2) 6-3 6-3 by Elena Rybakina.
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 deep to turn the match around, using her greater strength to overpower 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.
“I just kept on fighting, still trying to hit every ball, trying to be there. Mentally I was quite positive, just playing point by point,” said Pavlyuchenkova, who last month reached the quarter-finals of the Australian Open.
An hour after the match, Bencic was still at a loss to explain the turnaround.
“I’m really not sure yet. I’m trying to analyze what went wrong or what was the turning point. At this point I still don’t know what happened. Still looking for an answer. I really tried to focus, tell myself that I have to keep going. I’m not sure if mentally I kind of underestimated her after (the first set) or something. I didn’t maybe expect her to play that well, to kill so many shots.”
A winner in 2017 and 2018 and a semi-finalist in 2016 and 2019, world number six Svitolina has struggled this year, winning only four of her eight matches so far. That is in stark contrast to the manner in which she ended last season when she finished the year as runner-up at the WTA Finals.
“It was not a bad start, but then everything just went downhill,” Svitolina said. “I wish I could regroup better. In the end, I didn’t feel so good the ball. Just everything was all over the place today. It’s very tough to say now what happen, why did I play the way I play. Yeah, I wish I could play better here because I really love to compete here. I have great memories. Yeah, it’s very, very tough for me.”
It is the second straight year that Brady has qualified, and her victory today is only the second of her career over a top 10 opponent after she stunned world number one Ashleigh Barty in Brisbane last month. What was the secret to her success over Svitolina today?
“I think just going out there and believing that I could win,” she said. “Obviously respecting my opponent, but not to the point where I put the opponent on a pedestal, have to think that I have to play my best tennis in order to win. I was just focused on my game plan, myself. Think I competed well from the very beginning. I think I served pretty well throughout the whole match. Started off strong on the serve, was able to apply pressure on the return games. I was happy with the way I performed.”
Rybakina was ranked 192 a year ago and this week she entered the top 20 for the first time at 19. She has won more matches – 16 – than any other player on the WTA Tour this year, and reached the final of three out of the four tournaments she has played, winning Hobart. and finishing as runner-up at the Shenzhen Open and on Sunday in St. Petersburg.
“I had good pre-season actually,” said Rybakina, explaining her success in 2020. “First time I did like six weeks of preparation. I feel good on court. Of course, tired today because of the flight. I just finished a tournament. But still I feel confidence. To be honest, I didn’t (feel) nervous at all because I knew it’s going to be tough. I didn’t expect that I will win. I mean, I tried to do my best, but I was not nervous.”
“I just didn’t feel my game really well,” said Kenin. “Of course, yeah, she played well. I just made too many unforced errors. I just didn’t take my chances. I felt really off the whole match. I tried to somehow get back in there, hang in there, but it just didn’t work out today.”
“We have enjoyed so many remarkable performances today,” said Colm McLoughlin, Executive Vice Chairman and CEO of Dubai Duty Free. “In particular, the way in which Pavlyuchenkova recovered from such an intimidating start by our defending champion was thrilling to watch, and the fact that already two Dubai champions and the Australian Open winner have failed to get past the first round underlines how very strong our field of players is. It is impossible to guess who will be crowned as our 2020 champion on Saturday.”
Tournament director Salah Tahlak added, “Jennifer Brady clearly benefited from having already played three matches to reach the main draw, adjusting well to the conditions. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova has continued the good form she showed in reaching the quarter-finals of the Australian Open, and Rybakina showed tremendous stamina by coming from playing indoors in Russia on Sunday, flying straight to Dubai and then playing so well against a Grand Slam champion. The results today underline that there are no easy matches for any player in the main draw, even those who have succeeded at the very highest level here.”
The Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, which is owned and organised by Dubai Duty Free and held under the patronage of H. H. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, begins with the WTA event which continues until 22nd February and is then followed between 24th and 29th February by the ATP tournament which features Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Gael Monfils and Roberto Bautista Agut.