In The Key Of Victory, Keys Wins In Tour Return

Madison Keys (photo: @samer_alrejjal/Qatar Total Open)

DOHA/WASHINGTON, March 2, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

In her first match since losing in the first round at Roland Garros five months ago, American Madison Keys‘s return to the WTA tour was a successful one at the Qatar Total Open in Doha. She needed just over an hour to defeat World No. 12 and sixth seed Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 6-4, 6-1, Tuesday evening.

The 2017 US Open semifinalist was sharp in her first match of 2021. She hit two aces without committing any double faults, placed 77 percent of her first serves in play, hit 24 winners to 17 unforced errors, saved four of five break points she faced and converted four of the five break points against Bencic, who three days ago lost to Iga Swiatek in the Adelaide International final in Australia. Keys outpointed her opponent 64-44 and won the last five games, including the final 10 points of the match.

Tennis TourTalk asked Keys if playing Bencic made for an ideal opponent for her to have in her first match back on tour. She said: “Honestly, I don’t think on paper it typically is. She’s obviously just coming off of a couple of really great matches and doing well and a really tough opponent. …

“I think, you know, she’s probably not used to the courts and I had a couple of days here. It worked out pretty well for me tonight, and I think I played a really good match.

“I don’t think I’m a great matchup for [Belinda]. She has a really, really good backhand, and I think I was able to dictate with my forehand a little bit better today. So, I think that was probably why [I won].

“I think I just served really well and kept the pressure on her on the return games.”

Given the amount of time Keys missed due to a neck injury and then contracting COVID-19 in January, which prevented her from traveling to compete in the Australian Open, she’s happy to be back on court, healthy and playing, again.

On Wednesday, Keys will face Maria Sakkari of Greece, who reached the second round with a 6-0, 6-3 win over Egyptian wild card Mayar Sherif on Monday.

“I’m really happy with how I came out and played today,” Keys said. I’m a little bit surprised with myself but hoping to keep the momentum going tomorrow.”

Pegula Playing Some Of Her Best Tennis In Doha

While 10 of the WTA’s Top 20 players, including four of the Top 10, are entered this week in Doha, one who isn’t among the elite has quietly gone about playing some of her best tennis of the still young season: Jessica Pegula.

The 44th-ranked American from Buffalo, N.Y., scored her first main draw win – and fourth since arriving in Doha – after defeating No. 35 Wang Qiang of China, 6-3, 6-1 to reach the second round against No. 51 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. Pegula wrapped up the victory on her first match-point opportunity for her tenth victory of the season in 13 outings. It was her second career victory over Wang in two meetings.

Pegula, 27, who has won her last four matches and eight of her last nine going back to her quarterfinal-round finish at last month’s Australian Open, needed to win three qualifying draw matches in Qatar just to make the 28-player main draw. She did just that, defeating on consecutive days: Gaby Dabrowski of Canada, 6-0, 6-1; Anastasia Potapova of Russia, 6-2, 6-7 (3), 7-6 (6); and Misaki Doi of Japan, 6-2, 6-2.

Pegula’s only setbacks this year have been against Top 25 competition: World No. 5 Elina Svitolina at Abu Dhabi, World No. 4 Sofia Kenin in the third round of the Yarra Valley Classic in Melbourne, and to then-World No. 24 Jennifer Brady at the Australian Open.

After Pegula reached the Australian Open quarterfinals by upsetting Svitolina in the round of 16 in Melbourne, she said: “I can’t get more confident, it is my best result yet and I’m playing good tennis.”

Svitolina was asked what makes Pegula, who has one career WTA title to date (at the 2019 Citi Open in Washington, D.C.) tough to play. She said: “Well, she has her own game style. She hits the ball quite flat. Of course, she can rally with the spin. But a lot of the time her ball skids.”

Against Wang, Pegula saved 11 of 13 break points she faced while converting six of 13. She outpointed Wang 73-49 to advance.

Tuesday’s Qatar Total Open results

Wednesday’s Qatar Total Open order of play

Around the Qatar Total Open

• No. 31 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia advanced with a 6-2, 6-2 victory over 69th-ranked qualifier Anna Blinkova of Russia, needing just 65 minutes to set up a second-round match against World No. 6 and second seed Karolina Pliskova. Jabeur, who improved her lifetime record against Blinkova to 3-0, won 81 percent of her first serves and was not broken. She converted four of eight break-point chances and put away the match with a deftly placed drop shot instead of an overhead smash that caught Blinkova by surprise. By the time the Russian caught up with it, she hit a weak return into the net. Jabeur outpointed Blinkova 58-42.

“Not surprising coming from me, though, huh?” quipped Jabeur during her virtual press conference when asked by Tennis TourTalk about match point. “Honestly, I couldn’t do an overhead. It was tough because of the wind. My coach probably would have wanted for me to hit a forehand.

“I just wanted to surprise her, because I was like really preparing to hit a big forehand, but just at the last minute just change it up. It was close. She was really there to get the ball. I’m glad that I got away with that one.”

• No. 56 Laura Siegemund of Germany upset No. 23 Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-6 (7), 7-6 (5) for her sixth win of 2021 in her 10th match. Rybakina is the highest-ranked player Siegemund has beaten this year. The 32-year-old German, who won three qualifying matches to reach the main draw, now has won four matches in a row. Next, she will play against No. 8 seed Victoria Azarenka.

• No. 41 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia leveled her season record at 4-4 with her 6-2, 6-3 victory over 75th-ranked qualifier Kristyna Pliskova of the Czech Republic to move into the second round against another Czech, No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova, who won the Doha title in 2018.

• No. 83 Misaki Doi of Japan has been a three-time lucky loser in the last 12 months. After losing to Jessica Pegula on Monday in the final round of qualifying, she was elevated to main draw as a replacement for Amanda Anisimova. She made the most of her opportunity by beating No. 47 Zheng Saisai of China, 6-4, 6-3, to advance against World No. 5 and top seed Elina Svitolina. It was Zheng’s sixth straight loss going back to Doha last year, while the win evened Doi’s record at 6-6.

• Former doubles No. 1 Elena Vesnina of Russia is back on court after going on maternity leave in 2018. She’s in Doha with her husband and daughter, Elisabeth. Vesnina took a wild card into the doubles draw, paired with Germany’s Laura Siegemund, and they faced the superstar team of Victoria Azarenka and Elina Svitolina in a first-round match that went the distance Tuesday evening. Vesnina and Siegemund rallied to win 4-6 7-5, 10-8 in one hour and 36 minutes to reach the quarterfinals against Monica Niculescu of Romania and Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia. Earlier, Niculescu and Ostapenko took out No. 3 seeds Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara, both of Japan, 6-4, 6-2.

• After losing her singles match, Elena Rybakina withdrew from doubles due to stomach pain. The team of Rybakina and Yaroslava Shvedova, both from Kazakhstan, was replaced by the alternate team of Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan and Liang En-Shuo of Taiwan, who lost 6-1, 6-3 to Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Jessica Pegula, both from the United States.

What they’re saying

• Ons Jabeur on the quality of the draw this week in Doha: “Honestly, I think all players are tough. I mean, they all are hungry to win in here, in this tournament.

“It’s a small draw, so everyone is playing really good. Anna (Blinkova) was playing really good. She qualified. She had more matches than me, so it was a tricky match. I’m glad that I handled it really well today.

“Of course, tomorrow is going to be a different match, very difficult one (against No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova). I’m ready. I want to play my game. Like I want to win again here like last year.

“You know, it’s going to be like a very tricky match. I’m sure she’s gonna come on court really hungry to win, wants her revenge. But I will be ready for that.”

• Madison Keys on the disappointment of having to miss this year’s Australian Open while recovering from COVID-19: “I definitely wished I could have gone to Australia. I am glad that I found out before I left, because I did not want to be responsible for putting more people in quarantine So, I was happy about that.

“But, I was very, very disappointed and really, really wish I could have played in Australia this year. But I think the past year has just kind of showed us that we have to kind of roll with the punches and make the best of things.

“I was able to get back out on the court pretty quickly and practice, and now I’m back on tour and hoping to have a really good season.”