For Elina Svitolina, Every Tennis Match Is Like A Test

Elina Svitolina

WASHINGTON, January 7, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

It’s the first match of the year and if you’re World No. 5 Elina Svitolina, you want to make a good impression – something to build upon – as the 2021 season gets underway at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open in the capital city of the United Arab Emirates.

“For me, every match is like a test, and I try to really do everything that I practiced and worked on. I try to be focused on every point and see how it goes,” Svitolina said during her virtual chat with international media Thursday night.

The No. 2 seed from Ukraine ensured her place into the second round with a 6-4, 6-3 victory over No. 63 Jessica Pegula of the United States, in their first career head-to-head meeting. The one hour and 23-minute first-round match wrapped up play on Centre Court for the second day of this WTA 500-series outdoor hard-court event.

“[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 said. “I will try to get on the court tomorrow, to work on a few things here and there, to be even better.”

Svitolina broke Pegula’s serve three times while winning 73 percent of her first-serve points. She outpointed the American 69-59 to advance against former World No. 2 Vera Zvonareva of Russia, ranked No .164, who defeated No. 201 Amandine Hesse of France, 6-3, 6-4.

“I really, really enjoyed being out there,” Svitolina said. “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, and in the end, there were no ups and downs. It was quite a solid performance from me for the first match.”

A good day for top seeds, but there were upsets, too

It was a good day for top seeds as No. 1 Sofia Kenin of the United States, No. 3 Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, No. 5 Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain and No. 6 Elena Rybakina from Kazakhstan all prevailed in straight sets and advanced to the second round in their respective first tests of the new season.

However, the same couldn’t be said for three other seeded players. No. 7 seed Elise Mertens from Belgium withdrew with a right shoulder injury before taking the court; No. 8 seed Marketa Vondrousova of the Czech Republic fell to Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan, 3-6; 6-3, 7-6 (3); and No. 11 seed Jennifer Brady of the United States was ousted 0-6, 6-3, 6-4 by No. 87 Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia.

• World No. 4 Kenin, the 2020 WTA Player of the Year, took care of Chinese qualifier Yang Zhaoxuan, 7-6 (4), 6-2, in one hour and 55 minutes. Yang is a former Top 20 doubles player who is ranked No. 789 in singles and was seeing her first singles action since October 2019.

“It was the first match, obviously a bit of nerves; I had to find my groove,” Kenin said. “Conditions weren’t easy, it was quite windy. The first set was tough for me. I couldn’t find the ball, I guess. But the second set I start off strong.”

Kenin fired 11 aces and hit 45 winners overall to offset 40 unforced errors. She outpointed Yang 101-89.

• Pliskova, who has won a first-week WTA tournament in three of the last four years, defeated 275th-ranked lucky loser Despina Papamichail of Greece, 6-2, 7-6 (4) to move on. The World No. 6 was original scheduled to face Sorana Cirstea of Romania, but she was a late scratch due to an abdominal injury. It afforded the 27-year-old Greek an opportunity to make her WTA main draw debut. The change of opponent didn’t seem to bother Pliskova, who needed just one hour and 21 minutes to win her 2020 opener. She hit 25 winners and converted three of six break points.

“Of course, I prepared for something, but I still had a couple of hours just to change my feeling about the match,” Pliskova said during her virtual post-match press chat. “No matter who was there, I wanted to play the best I can. … I had some good moments, some bad moments, but I’m happy to win my first match this year.”

• World No. 10 Sabalenka picked up where she left off in 2020: she won 7-6 (5), 6-2 over No. 49 Polona Hercog of Slovenia to extended her winning streak to 10 straight matches going back to 2020. Sabalenka overcame a first-set deficit, down 2-5 to push the first set to a tie-break, which she won.

“When the score was 2-5, 15-40, I just said to myself, ‘ Oh, I don’t care about this set,'” Sabalenka said. “I just need to find the rhythm. I was trying to hit the returns to find a smooth motion. Somehow, I won that game. I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe I have a chance to still win this set. Keep playing, keep moving. …

“She was playing really well in the beginning and I wasn’t moving well and I couldn’t find my rhythm. But I’m really happy that in these conditions I was able to find a way and I went actually through it and won this match. I think I was focusing on putting as many balls in as I can and that was it.

“I didn’t have my serve and I didn’t have my forehand and backhand, but I had my character – and I was just trying to use it as much as I can. Keep fighting for every point. I think that’s why I won today.”

• Former World No. 1 Muguruza of Spain leveled her lifetime head-to-head with No. 50 Kristina Mladenovic from France at 2-all following her 6-2, 6-4 victory in one hour and 41-minute victory. Muguruza hit three aces and saved eight of 10 break points she faced. She took advantage of 11 double faults by Mladenovic – five in the last game alone – including on match point.

“I felt like I started by getting used to the wind and the court,” Muguruza said. “So, I started a little bit not hitting the ball properly, moving a bit weird, just getting my feet together. [Mladenovic] played well, she took the advantage, and then I started to feel a little bit better, and I turned the score around.”

• Sixth seed Rybakina took care of 394th-ranked Lucrezia Stefanini of Italy, 6-1, 6-3, in one hour by taking advantage of five service breaks while outpointing the qualifier 55-28.

Thursday’s results

Other first-round winners include: No. 12 seed Karolina Muchova of Czech Republic defeated No. 77 Danika Kovinic of Montenegro, 6-4, 6-1; Alizé Cornet of France, ranked No. 53, beat 233rd-ranked lucky loser Valentini Grammatikopoulou of Greece, 6-2, 6-2; No. 58 Heather Watson defeated 263rd-ranked lucky loser Jodie Burrage, 4-6, 6-2, 7-5, in a battle of the Brits; and No. 48 Coco Gauff of the United States advanced over 260th-ranked alternate Ulrikke Eikeri of Norway, 6-0, 6-1.

Friday’s order of play