Dubai Premier 2020: Draw opens up as former champs Bencic and Svitolina fall at first hurdle

Australian Open champ Sofia Kenin also loses opener; qualifier Brady reaches QF

Marianne Bevis
By Marianne Bevis
Elina Svitolina
Elina Svitolina (Photo: Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships)

Defending champion and No4 seed Belinda Bencic, former two-time champion and No3 seed, Elina Svitolina, plus Australian Open champion and No5 seed, Sofia Kenin, have all failed to survive the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

Bencic, who this week is ranked at a career-high No4, was beaten 1-6, 6-1, 6-1, by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.

The Swiss 22-year-old, who made her first Major semi-final at the US Open last September, had seemed on the way to an easy victory as she dominated the first set, beginning the match with 19 consecutive points. But Pavlyuchenkova, ranked 31 and a quarter-finalist at the Australian Open last month, turned the match around, using her greater power to reverse fortunes.

After dropping her serve to begin the second set, the Russian 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 said of her win;

“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.”

Bencic, meanwhile, was still at a loss to explain the turnaround and hour later:

“I’m really not sure yet. I’m trying to analyse 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.”

Svitolina, who won the Dubai title in 2017 and 2018, and was a semi-finalist in 2016 and 2019, lost to qualifier Jennifer Brady, 6-2, 6-1.

The loss takes the Ukrainian who has 13 titles to her name to just four wins for five losses so far this season after a strong end to 2019 where she went from a semi run at the US Open to a runner-up finish at the WTA Finals in Wuhan.

She was clearly disappointed with her performance:

“It was not a bad start, but then everything just went downhill. 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 happened, why did I play the way I played. 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 against Svitolina was only the second of her career over a top-10 opponent after she stunned world No1 Ashleigh Barty in Brisbane last month.

What, then, was the secret to her success over Svitolina? The American, ranked 52 in the world, said:

“I think just going out there and believing that I could win. 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.”

Not content with that victory, Brady went on to play and beat the 2019 Roland Garros runner-up, Marketa Vondrousova, and in some style from a set and a break down. The American won 11 of the last 12 games, 4-6, 6-4, 6-1, and would next play the winner between No9 seed Garbine Muguruza, who put out crowd favourite Kim Clijsters in the first round, or the 39-ranked Veronika Kudermetova. Brady, as a result, will break the top 50 for the first time.

Kenin was beaten by Elena Rybakina, ranked at a career-high No17, 6-7(2) 6-3, 6-3.

Rybakina, age just 20, has been one of the best players of the season so far. She was ranked 192 a year ago but this week entered the top 20 for the first time after winning more matches—16—than any other player on the WTA tour. She reached the final of three out of the four tournaments she has played in 2020, winning Hobart, and finishing as runner-up at the Shenzhen Open in St Petersburg.

She said of her latest win:

“I had a good pre-season actually. 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 would win.”

Rybakina next plays qualifier Katerina Siniakova, and the winner will go on to face the No2 seed Karolina Pliskova, who showed her usual Dubai form in a 6-1, 6-2 win over Kristina Mladenovic. Pliskova was runner-up to Simona Halep in 2015, and has been a quarter-finalist at the tournament in the last two years.

Pliskova sounded very confident after her win, and rightly so, with Bencic and Kenin now out of her half of the draw:

“Overall I think I had pretty much all the match under my control. Even though she played some great shots, some good serves, I think I was in charge of most of the games.

“Although the score was easy, I could easily think it’s already done. But she was still fighting in the second set. I think it was positive that I really stayed in because she could make it difficult for me if I don’t really stay in the match.”

Top seed Simona Halep begins her campaign in Wednesday’s evening session in Dubai against ‘home’ favourite, Tunisian Ons Jabeur, who plays with a wild card at a career-high ranking of 45. But Halep, the only former champion remaining the draw, has not lost her first match at a tournament since Rome 2019 Rome.


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