One-Two Punch Adds Up To Another Sabalenka Victory

Aryna Sabalenka (photo: WTA/Twitter)

WASHINGTON, January 10, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

No. 4 seed Aryna Sabalenka rolled to her 12th straight victory with a 6-2, 6-4 victory over 15th seed Ons Jabeur in the third round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open in the Emirates capital Sunday.

With an impressive serve and return game – an effective one-two punch formula that has produced three solid wins in Abu Dhabi this week without losing a set – the World No. 10 from Belarus advanced to her third consecutive quarterfinal dating back to her final two tournaments of 2020 in Ostrava and Linz.

Sabalenka and Jabeur are no strangers to each other on the tennis court. On Centre Court of the Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre, they met for the second time, and like today, their previous meeting also took place during the third round of a tournament. The first time, the Tunisian Jabeur gutted out a 7-6 (7) 2-6, 6-3 at last year’s French Open, which happens to be the last time Sabalenka lost a match. This time, there would be a different winner.

“I’m really happy with this win because I lost to her at Roland Garros. So, this was a really tricky game and I was a little bit nervous,” Sabalenka said during her virtual media session with international reporters, smiling as she broke down the positives of her victory. “It was a tough one but I think what I did well today is I didn’t give her time to play, to do her trick shots and that’s why I think she didn’t feel really well on the court. That’s what I needed at Roland Garros. The courts were really slow and she had the time and it was really tricky tennis. I think this was the key for today’s win.”

Indeed, Sabalenka denied Jabeur an opportunity to notch her fifth career Top 10 win by dominating from the start of their one hour and seven-minute match. The Belarusian broke at love to win the opening set – her second of five service breaks in the match – and although she allowed Jabeur an opportunity to get back into the tussle, Sabalenka was not to be stymied.

Trailing 2-4, Sabalenka held and broke the Tunisian to even the second set at 4-all. Then, she held again to pull ahead 5-4. The multi-talented Sabalenka had the 31st-ranked Jabeur on her back foot in more ways than one. Finally, she put away the match on her first match-point opportunity – winning eight of the final 10 points of the match – to advance to the quarterfinals against No. 6 Elena Rybakina, who took out No. 72 Daria Kasatkina of Russia, 6-3, 6-4, on the strength of hitting 23 winners and converting three service breaks. The 19th-ranked Kazakh outpointed Kasatkina 62-43. The win avenged her previously loss to the Russian in Ostrava last year. She’s now won 26 of 28 service games in her first three matches.

“I played well today; I was focused. I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy match,” Rybakina said, who admitted that focus will be important when she faces Sabalenka on Monday. “I will need to play every point because I know Aryna is a fighter. No matter what, it’s going to be a difficult match.”

Looking ahead to Monday’s quarterfinal, Sabalenka told Tennis TourTalk she wouldn’t be thinking about her winning streak. “What happened in the past happened in the past and I don’t want to focus on the past.

“Yeah, I won 12 matches but tomorrow is another day. I will do everything I can to win another one. I’m not afraid of losing. This is part of our job. But if I can keep winning, then I will do everything I can to keep winning.”

On the brink of defeat, Kenin raises her level to win

Top seed and World No. 4 Sofia Kenin of the United States had never faced 28th-ranked Yulia Putintseva from Kazakhstan before in match that counted in the record book even though they are sometimes practice partners. However, after their third-round match, in which Kenin saved a second-set match point then rallied to put away the No. 13 seed after more than two and one-half hours, make no mistake, her familiarity with her opponent paid off.

Putintseva was just a point from a straight-set victory, ahead 6-3, 6-5 with the match on her racquet. However, the Kazakh couldn’t seal the victory. Instead, Kenin turned the match around by pushing the second set to a tie-break that she prevailed in and went on to win in three sets, 3-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 – all despite committing 57 unforced errors, 14 more than Putintseva.

“I felt like today was mostly a mental match, because I practice with her quite a bit, and I know her game well, and she knows my game pretty well,” Kenin said, during her post-match meeting with media. “I didn’t play the way I wanted to play, but of course, she played really well. And I guess, it helps being a Grand Slam champion, knowing kind of what to do on those tough points, those moments. I was able to find my rhythm by the end of the third set.”

Asked by Tennis TourTalk how she kept her focus through so many peaks and valleys during the lengthy match, Kenin quipped: “I guess I have to be match-point down to kind of pick up my game. I started well in the second set, but [Yulia] picked up her game. It was more mental. I [know] I have to find a way to battle through and get the tie-break win. I’m happy with the way I fought. … I was able to win when it counted.”

Next, Kenin will take a 2-0 career head-to-head advantage into her match with ninth seed Maria Sakkari of Greece, who defeated fifth seed Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain, 7-5, 6-4.

Speaking of Sakkari, the World No. 22 has now won 17 career matches against Top 20 opposition. Her victory over the 15th-ranked Muguruza not only kept her 2020 win-loss record unblemished at 3-0, she’s yet to drop a set. The Greek rising star fired 11 aces, including on match point, and hit 33 winners overall against the Spaniard. She showed her serve is fast becoming a big weapon. Meanwhile, Muguruza mustered just five winners and committed an uncharacteristic 29 unforced errors.

“I came up with some good serves when I needed them,” Sakkari suggested during her virtual news conference. “Overall, I served well but not as well as I wanted. I am starting to feel like I want to feel throughout the season … playing well, playing good.”

Kostyuk comes through – and quickly, too

Unseeded Marta Kostyuk , just 18, needed just 54 minutes to reach her first WTA quarterfinal at a 500-level event. The World No. 99 from Ukraine who a day earlier failed to close out a 6-3, 5-1 lead only to rally from 1-3 down to beat 35-year-old Hsieh Su-Wei of Taiwan to move into the third round, defeated No. 87 Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia, 6-1, 6-1.

“With Tamara today, I knew exactly how to play against her; I knew exactly where all her shots would go, where she would serve, where she would return,” Kostyuk explained to Tennis TourTalk during her virtual media news conference, at times poking fun at herself while breaking out in laughter. “I don’t think I made many adjustments. I had many more short points today compared to yesterday. I was surprised by that. I played good. No ups and downs. Obviously, the ending [yesterday] was a little bit shaky. I didn’t let that happen today.”

It sets up what should be an entertaining quarterfinal match for Kostyuk on Monday against unseeded Sara Sobbes Tormo. The 66th-ranked Spaniard ended the surprising run of 292nd-ranked Russian qualifier Anastasia Gasanova, 7-5, 6-3, thanks to converting six of 10 break-point opportunities and outpointing her opponent 76-66. A day earlier, Gasanova knocked World No. 6 and third seed Karolina Pliskova out of the tournament. Monday’s meeting of the unseeded Kostyuk and Sorribes Tormo means an unseeded player will reach the semifinals of the first WTA tournament of 2021.

When Kostyuk was asked what reaching going deep into her first tournament meant for her confidence, she said: “Obviously, it’s a good start. It’s something to build on for the year. I hope this year is going to be consistent and we’re going to play through the whole year with no long breaks.”

Svitolina endures to play another day

World No. 5 and second seed Elina Svitolina saved two match points against No. 17 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova during a third-set tie break – thanks to her never-say-die resolve – after rallying from down 3-5 in the final set. Then, she beat the 33rd-ranked Russian seed on her second match-point opportunity to secure a hard-fought 6-2, 6-7 (5), 7-6 (8) victory that lasted two hours and 31 minutes.

Svitolina overcame 30 unforced errors and five breaks of her serve by hitting 20 winners and breaking her opponent’s serve seven times in 13 opportunities. Meanwhile, Alexandrova hit 40 winners but committed a whopping 57 unforced errors. The Ukrainian won 124 of the 230 points played during the third-round match.

“It’s important to be really focused on what you have to do [to win],” Svitolina told Tennis TourTalk during her post-match media chat. “In the end it helped me because I stayed fairly calm. … I was fighting like hell because [Ekaterina] was playing really aggressive. I really fought hard to earn the win.”

Afterward, as Svitolina walked off the tennis court, she beamed a smile at her team sitting in the nearly empty stadium.“For me, it was important to relax and know I had fought for the win. It was a moment of amazing feeling knowing I succeeded.”

Next, Svitolina will oppose No. 46 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, who came on strong in the final set to beat Spain’s No. 70 Paula Badosa, 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Kudermetova hit 10 aces, won nearly 82 percent of her first-serve points and broke Badosa seven times in 11 chances. It was her second straight win against Badosa in two career meetings dating to 2019.

Kudermetova will be the third straight Russian opponent for Svitolina this week in Abu Dhabi. They’ve met once, back in Moscow in 2019, which Kudermetova triumphed.

“It was unfortunately not the best match for me, but we still played to three sets,” Svitolina said. “It’s going to be a really good match, really looking forward to trying to get revenge. She has quite flat shots, so I’ll have to be ready.”

Sunday’s results

Monday’s order of play