Gasanova Pulls Off A Marvelous Upset At Abu Dhabi

Anastasia Gasanova (photo: WTA video)

WASHINGTON, January 9, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

Imagine the thrill of playing in your first WTA main draw. Pretty cool! Now, imagine you’re thrusted into playing a Top 100 player for the first time. Awesome! Now, imagine the joy of capturing your first Top 100 win. Wow! That’s the life of World No. 292 Anastasia Gasanova this week at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open in the Emirates capital.

On Saturday, the 21-year-old Russian qualifier from Saratov took Centre Court at the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre and played marvelously – and unafraid. She fired 18 winners to 15 unforced errors to upset World No. 6 and third seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic, 6-2, 6-4. The victory – Gasanova’s biggest of her young career – advanced her to the third round against Spain’s Sara Sorribes Tormo.

After Gasanova secured match point, the WTA TV commentator, Sue Thearle, exclaimed for a worldwide audience: “A staggering display … it was nerveless and fearless. She can’t quite believe it, but a look at the scoreboard will confirm it for her. Look at that!”

“It was not me on the court,” Gasanova suggested with a soft, unabashed tone of voice filled with a touch of laughter as she spoke virtually with a group of international media following her implausible victory. “I was so sure of myself. I’m really happy right now.”

After making her WTA main-draw debut earlier this week and gaining her first Tour-level triumph in the first round against Germany’s Mona Barthel, Gasanova’s surprising conquest over Pliskova marked the first time in her brief career she’s taken court against a Top 100 player let alone one with a Top 10 pedigree such as Pliskova.

However, Gasanova played fearless tennis and let the 28-year-old Pliskova become undone. Although the former World No. 1 fired nine aces, she also committed 28 unforced errors. Meanwhile, Gasanova held serve in eight of her nine service games and while she didn’t land any aces, there were no double faults, either. She placed 78 percent of her first serves in play, was efficient in winning 67 percent of her first-serve points, and broke her opponent’s serve four times. Gasanova won the second-round match on her third match-point opportunity and outpointed Pliskova 65-50. She got the job done in just 75 minutes.

For Pliskova (1-1), the defeat was her first to a player ranked outside the Top 50 since losing to then-No. 73 Jelena Ostapenko at Beijing two years ago. Plus, she had won a first of the season title in three of the past four seasons (2017, 2019, 2020 at Brisbane). Now, Pliskova will have some extra time to think about what hit her while Gasanova will be back on court Sunday against the 66th-ranked Sorribes Tormo, who opened with victories over No. 47 Nadia Podoroska of Argentina and No. 62 Bernarda Pera of the United States. A berth in the quarterfinals goes to the winner.

“I’m really surprised, but when I woke up today, I thought, ‘Why not? Why can’t I win this match?'” Gasanova suggested. “Actually, I thought I would lose in qualies or something like that, but I just kept pushing myself, like, I need to win and I want to win. I’m very surprised.”

Seeded 12th in the qualifying draw, Gasanova beat No. 475 Giuliana Omos of Mexico and No. 536 Ena Shibahara of Japan to earn a place in the 64-player main draw for the season’s first WTA 500-series event. By stringing together two main-draw victories against the 228th-ranked Barthel and Pliskova, her provisional ranking has improved to No. 226, an impressive jump of 66 places.

“I had a goal to be Top 200, actually,” Gasanova said in projecting what she hoped to accomplish in 2021. “I don’t know if I did this today, but that’s my goal. And to play against a Top 10 player is a great opportunity for me, and it’s a great chance to show how I could play.”

Muguruza, Sakkari march on

For fifth seed Garbiñe Muguruza, Saturday was all business as the World No. 15 from Spain defeated No. 90 Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, 6-1, 6-4, in one hour and 20 minutes to advance to the round of 16. The two-time Grand Slam winner improved to 2-0 on the young season and her latest win brought her satisfaction from a job well done. After all, Muguruza won nearly 70 percent of her first-serve opportunities and broke her opponent’s serve seven times. Her second win of the young season set up a Sunday popcorn match against ninth seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, who was impressive in her 7-5, 6-2 take down of American prodigy Coco Gauff.

“I’m happy with the way it’s going,” Muguruza told Tennis TourTalk during her virtual news conference. “Since it’s the first tournament of the year, and it’s been a long time since my last match, I feel happy with how my tennis is going.

“It can be tricky in the first tournament to get the rhythm back in the competition. So, I’m happy to be in the third round.”

A year ago, Muguruza established herself with an 11-2 beginning to the pandemic-interrupted 2020 season. So, she knows the importance of getting on track with some positive results. This week in Abu Dhabi, not only is Muguruza off to a good start in the singles draw, she’s also reached the quarterfinals in doubles paired with Jennifer Brady of the United States, which is giving her more time to be on the court.

“That was the whole idea to play the doubles here, to get more matches, to get the rhythm, returns and serves,” Muguruza said. “Just to be on the court extra hours. I thought about Jennifer and she was happy with it. I think we’re a great team and we’re having fun out there. It’s the first time we’ve played doubles together, so it’s not like we’re putting pressure to each other. It’s fun.”

Meanwhile, the 22nd-ranked Sakkari made her time on court against No. 48 Gauff quick and efficient in securing victory in 88 minutes – and she made a nice recovery after being down a double break at 1-3 in the first set. From there, Sakkari went on to break Gauff six times in 13 tries and outpointed her opponent 73-59. She finished with 18 winners to just eight for Gauff.

It was Sakkari’s second triumph over Gauff in their two career meetings, after beating her at last year’s Western & Southern Open in New York. She was critical at times but overall upbeat during her virtual media chat afterwards.

“Clearly, I didn’t play my best tennis; my serve was not there and conditions were tough,” Sakkari told Tennis TourTalk. “I’m actually proud of how the past few months I have been finding solutions. Even on a bad day – it was ugly on my side – I just found solutions and got the win,” Sakkari said, “and I still have one more chance to play better.”

Confident and steady, Svitolina advances

No. 2 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine is no stranger to winning in the Middle East as her twin titles in Dubai (2017-18) will attest. The World No. 5 has adapted well to the Abu Dhabi environment – a fast Centre Court coupled with windy conditions – during her first two matches. On Saturday, she easily beat former World No. 2 Vera Zvonareva from Russia, 6-4, 6-1, to set up a third-round meeting with 17th seed Ekaterina Alexandrova of Russia, who defeated Great Britain’s 58th-ranked Heather Watson, 7-5, 6-7 (7), 6-3, in the day’s longest singles match at two hours and 30 minutes.

Svitolina’s confidence and steady demeanor were evident against the veteran, No. 164  Zvonareva. She hit 15 winners against 14 unforced errors and caused her more experienced opponent into committing 25 unforced errors.

During her virtual post-match news conference, Svitolina suggested that she and Zvonareva were “playing quite a good level in the first set.

“Then at 4-all I had a chance to break her and I took this chance. In the end, I was playing quite aggressive and didn’t let her come back into the match. With the performance in the first set, I’m very proud.”

News & noteworthy

• No. 6 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan has quietly gone about the business of winning this week. Her 6-4, 6-4 victory over 19-year-old Wang Xiyu of China, ranked No. 123, included three aces, a winning efficiency of nearly 85 percent on her first serves, and she saved both break points she faced. Next, Rybakina will face No. 72 Daria Kasatkina of Russian, who earned a walkover against No. 12 seed Karolina Muchova of the Czech Republic, who withdrew from both the singles and doubles draws.

• No. 1 doubles seeds Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan and Barbora Krejcikova from the Czech Republic advanced to the quarterfinals with a 6-2, 3-6, 12-10 victory over Sharon Fichman of Canada and Giuliana Olmos from Mexico. Hsieh is ranked World No. 1 while Krejcikova is ranked seventh. What is remarkable about this formidable pair is that they normally partner with others – Hsieh with Barbora Strycova and Krejcikova with Katerina Siniakova. Next, Hsieh and Krejcikova will face fifth seeds Shuai Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both from Japan.

Saturday’s results

Sunday’s order of play