DUBAI, February 18, 2020 (by Michael Dickens)
For the first 25 minutes of Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova’s first-round match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships against defending champion Belinda Bencic, nothing could go right for the 28-year-old Russian. She lost the first 19 points, was broken in her first two service games and found herself dug deep in a hole trailing 5-0. Bencic came within five points of pulling off a golden set.
Then, after losing the opening set 6-1, suddenly, the momentum of the match flipped. It was as if the 31st-ranked Pavlyuchenkova had lifted a black cloud that had been hanging over her.
Over the next 65 minutes, Pavlyuchenkova went to work and, game by game, dismantled the World No. 4 Bencic. As she began to focus her energy, the Samara, Russia native strung together nine straight winning games to capture the second set and open a 3-0 advantage in the third en route to a 1-6, 6-1, 6-1 victory. In all, Pavlyuchenkova won 12 of the final 13 games of the one hour and 30 minute Centre Court match.
“I’m really, really happy with my performance – well, not the first set,” Pavlyuchenkova remarked in an on-court interview. “I had to play my best today because, obviously, she’s the defending champion – plays really good here – and is a really good player.”
Pavlyuchenkova, a winner of 12 career singles titles whose ranking peaked at No. 13 in 2011, overcame nine double faults and 24 unforced errors by hitting 28 winners and broke the 22-year-old Bencic’s times in 14 opportunities. She outpointed the Swiss star 70-63.
When Pavlyuchenkova was asked how she could lose the first 19 points of the match and turn it around dramatically and still win, she said, “Honestly, I really couldn’t feel the ball very well and she started off very accurately from the first game. But I stayed positive, even at 5-0. I couldn’t put the ball in the court, but I was still mentally there and was still fighting, and I think that helped me going into the second set to have this positive mind and to fight on.”
Meanwhile, an hour after the match as she sat down to be interviewed by tournament media, the fourth seed Bencic was still at a loss to explain what happened to her on Centre Court.
“I’m really not sure yet,” she said. “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 or something. I didn’t maybe expect her to play that well, to kill so many shots.”
In the end, Pavlyuchenkova had found her game. She broke Bencic for a seventh consecutive time as the defending champion netted a backhanded return with her 24th unforced error. The remarkable turnaround was complete.
“It’s tennis, sometimes it happens,” said Pavlyuchenkova, who hopes to build upon her Australian Open quarterfinal finish. “I just kept on fighting, still trying to hit every ball, trying to be there.”
Next, Pavlyuchenkova will oppose No. 24 Anett Kontaveit, who beat 70th-ranked qualifier Sorana Cirstea 6-1, 6-3 in 69 minutes. The Pavlyuchenkova-Kontaveit match will follow Wednesday evening’s featured Centre Court match between top seed Simona Halep and No. 45 wild card Ons Jabeur.
— WTA (@WTA) February 18, 2020
Svitolina ousted in first round
American Jennifer Brady, who won three straight qualifying matches to reach the main draw, hit 17 winners and needed just an hour to upset third seed Elina Svitolina, 6-2, 6-1. The World No. 6 from Ukraine, who won the Dubai title in 2017 and 2018, garnered just 38 percent of her service points and was broken five times by the 52nd-ranked Brady. It was Brady’s second Top 10 win and it sets up a second-round match against unseeded No. 17 Marketa Vondrousova.
When Brady was asked after her win why she does so well against higher-ranked opponents, she suggested that she’s just been “going out there and believing that I could win.” She added: “Obviously respecting my opponent, but not to the point where I put the opponent on a pedestal. … I was just focused on my game plan, myself.”
When Brady walks out on Court 1 Wednesday to face Vondrousova, it will be her fifth match in Dubai. “Every match you play, you get more used to the conditions, the court, the balls,” she said. “You start to get in that competitive match mode. Yeah, I mean, it’s great to obviously have, going into the second round here, four matches under my belt. Yeah, I think it’s pretty good.”
Meanwhile, Svitolina leveled her 2020 season record at 4-4 with her loss to Brady. She said: “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.
“I’m trying still to find what’s going on, what I have to add to improve. It’s very tough to pick one thing. I think just everything has to come together. I have to be stronger physically. I have to be in a better shape. Just everything has to get better. We’re working hard, but something is maybe not right now. We will continue working and trying to find that particular moment where I will feel better and play better.”
She claims it over Svitolina, 6-2, 6-1. pic.twitter.com/UwMHTkVO2p
— WTA (@WTA) February 18, 2020
Rybakina beats AO champion Kenin
In just a year, Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan has improved her ranking from No. 192 to No. 19. This season, she’s won all seven of her three-set matches, which now includes a 6-7 (2), 6-3, 6-3 victory over Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin in Tuesday evening’s featured Centre Court match. Rybakina, who earlier this year lifted the trophy at Hobart in the run up to Melbourne and was a finalist last weekend in St. Petersburg, fired seven aces and hit 25 winners against the No. 5 seed Kenin in their first head-to-head. She broke her Russian-born American opponent four times and was broken just once during the two hour and one minute match.
“I’m so happy with my win today,” Rybakina said during a post-match interview. ”I’m working hard. It’s amazing that I managed to win today because I just finished a tournament (in St. Petersburg Sunday) and I came (here) one day before.”
A good day for qualifiers
• It was a good day for qualifiers Kristina Mladenovic and Katerina Siniakova. Both reached the second round with their respective victories. The No. 38 Mladenovic beat 114th-ranked qualifier Aliaksandra Sasnovich, 6-4, 6-3, while No. 58 Siniakova upset No. 27 Karolina Muchova, 6-4, 4-6, 6-0. Mladenovic will face No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova in the second round on Wednesday, hoping to avenge her Australian Open first-round loss to the Czech Republic star, while Siniakova draws No. 19 Elena Rybakina.
• Thirty-ninth-ranked qualifier Veronika Kudermetova rallied from a double break down in the final set to gain a 5-7, 6-3, 7-6 (2) win over No. 26 Dayana Yastremska and next will face ninth seed Garbiñe Muguruza. Also, No. 15 Petra Martic earned a 6-4, 6-3 win over No. 40 Hsieh-Su-Wei and will play No. 35 Barbora Strycova in the second round. Finally, seventh seed Aryna Sabalenka wrapped up play with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 win over No. 21 Maria Sakkari and will oppose her doubles partner, No. 22 Elise Mertens, in the second round.
Coaching from the player box trial begins
The WTA’s trial of allowing coaching from the player box began this week in Dubai. It will continue throughout the 2020 season at all WTA Premier and International events. It follows on-court coaching which began in 2008 and the use of WTA-authorized tablets that was implemented in 2015.
During a recent interview by the WTA Insider, Darren Cahill, who coaches World No. 2 Simona Halep and also serves as a tennis analyst for ESPN, said, “I think as an industry, a coaching industry in tennis, it’s important that we do evolve and that we do this. I’m really for it. I think the WTA is doing a good thing.”
On Monday, Egyptian tennis journalist Reem Abulleil was interviewed by NPR Morning Edition’s David Greene in the United States about the coaching trial. She said: “The WTA is trying to promote their coaches simply to add an extra element and layer to what is an individual sport. I’m not really sure that they’re really doing that just because everyone’s doing it so we’re going to allow it. I think that’s just what they’re saying. But I just think that they want coaches to be more involved.
“And actually, I don’t think that the coaches are going to do a lot more than they’re already doing right now. I don’t think we’re going to find a coach yelling at someone from across the court or deciding to break down tactics and strategy in the few seconds that they have when a player is on their side of the court.”
What they’re tweeting
I may have lost the match but for me this was a win. Being back on Court … that’s the feeling and energy I’ve missed and loved finding it again. Now looking forward to working together with my team to continue to grow and find my rhythm – step by step! 💪 #fortheloveofthegame pic.twitter.com/wFRcp4JaYq
— Kim Clijsters (@Clijsterskim) February 18, 2020