In A Day Of Dubai Upsets, Pliskova Survives

Karolina Pliskova (photo: DDF Tennis)

DUBAI/WASHINGTON, March 9, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

As Day Three of the WTA’s first 1000-series event of the year, the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, pared its field from 32 to 16 on Tuesday, some of the top seeds were pushed to go the distance in order to advance, while other seeded players were upset by hungrier opponents.

For instance, No. 2 seed Karolina Pliskova needed three sets to get by No. 55 Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia on a day in which the wind wreaked havoc on the Centre Court. The World No. 6 from the Czech Republic overcame 11 doubles faults – and recovered from squandering two second-set match points, then losing a second-set tie break – and still won, 6-3, 6-7 (5), 6-2, which leveled her career head-to-head with the Latvian at 2-all.

While Sevastova, who holds 10 career wins over Top 10-ranked players, kept her hopes alive in the second set – thanks to a dead net cord and overcame a 1-4 deficit in the ensuing tiebreak that she snatched from Pliskova – she will have to wait for another opportunity to get number 11.

“I thought I could win much faster, but at least I don’t have to practice today because if it had been two sets, I may have had to,” quipped Pliskova during her virtual post-match press conference. “It can give me some extra strength that I was able to fight back after an unfortunate second set, find my way in the third and play good tennis after that.”

Pliskova was queried about the double-digit number of double faults she accumulated. She acknowledged her shortcoming and suggested she will learn from her mistakes and try to make improvements in time for her third-round match tomorrow.

“I definitely was not happy about the statistic,” Pliskova told Tennis TourTalk. “But, it’s not necessarily the case why I maybe lost the second set. The conditions are tough, the balls are flying. Sometimes, you just don’t have much [of a] chance to control where you play or how you play. … Of course, if there is something I can do to improve in my next match, I want to improve it.”

On the positive side of Pliskova’s numbers, she hit eight aces and won 73 percent (48 of 66) of her first-serve points, plus saved nine of the 11 break points she faced. However, complicating matters, Pliskova converted just five of 14 break points during the slightly more than two-hour match.

“I know the conditions from playing here many years, but I’ve been struggling with the conditions. It’s so much different [from Doha]. It can cause more mistakes,” she said. “I’ve noticed everyone is struggling here with the mistakes and errors. I hope things can get better with the wind.”

Next, Pliskova faces No. 36 Jessica Pegula for the second straight week after she advanced with a 6-1, 6-2 victory over Kristina Mladenovic of France. It was the American from Buffalo, N.Y., who knocked Pliskova out in the quarterfinal round in Doha less than a week ago. Pliskova, for one, welcomes the rematch.

“In Australia, I played back-to-back with Danielle Collins, so I think the main thing about playing the same player two weeks in a row is that it will be tough for them to repeat the matches they played the first time,” Pliskova said. “Pegula played great last week in Doha and is obviously playing quite OK at every tournament. She’s confident, so it definitely won’t be easy, but we’d never played before last week. So, there may be some things about which I can be more careful. It’s also a completely different tournament. I just hope to be better because I was super tired and not really ready last time we played.”

Also, No. 6 seed Belinda Bencic erased a two-match winning streak but had to go three sets – and five match points – to defeat No. 34 Veronika Kudermetova of Russia, 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, sealing her victory with an ace after two hours and 38 minutes. It was the fourth time the two had battled to a three-set finish. This time, unlike three times since 2018 in which Kudermetova had bested Benic, the World No. 12 from Switzerland came out on top.

Asked during her virtual press conference if it was her goal to play such a long, entertaining match, Bencic smiled at the reporter’s question and said: “That was definitely not my goal, but I’m glad your found it to be entertaining. Of course, this is tennis. I’m just happy I stayed calm in the end, and kept telling myself, ‘This is normal, this is how it goes.’ Sometimes, you just have to go the long way and I’m really happy how I handled it mentally.”

Next, Bencic, who is the lone remaining seed in the top half of the draw, will play a very in-form 19-year-old Anastasia Potapova from Russia, who upset No. 11 seed Madison Keys of the United Staes, 6-4, 6-3, for her third Top 20 win and first in two years. The 88th-ranked wild card Potapova converted seven of 10 break-point opportunities, which eliminated Keys in the second round for the second straight week and advanced Potapova to the third round of a tournament for the second time this season.

Sabalenka sports new-look cap during win

No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka ended a two-match losing streak and did so by sporting a new look during her 6-2, 6-4 victory over No. 59 Alizé Cornet of France on the strength of seven breaks of the Frenchwoman’s serve plus winning more points on her return than on her serve (41 to 27). Sabalenka forsook her familiar bandana for a white baseball-style cap. She’s 1-0 with the new look.

“It was a tough match and I’m really happy I won this one,” Sabalenka said during her virtual chat with the media after her win, “especially since I was struggling with my serve and to find my rhythm.”

Asked by Tennis TourTalk about the new-look white baseball-style cap, Sabalenka smiled at the reporter’s question. “Like all girls, I want to change something sometimes! The cap is so comfortable but it made me more focused, it felt good. So, why not?”

Next, Sabalenka will face No. 15 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia, who advanced with a 6-4, 7-5 win over No. 67 Sorana Cirstea of Romania. The 24th-ranked Estonian has won four of her last five since the end of the Australian Open and is 8-2 in her last 10 hard-court matches, but 0-2 against Top 10 players in the past year.

Kuznetsova upsets No. 1 seed Svitolina

Thirty-five-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova might be the oldest player in the Dubai draw, but it hasn’t stopped her from putting in the time and effort to reach the last 16 in the Emirates. After spotting No. 1 seed Elina Svitolina the first set, the Russian rallied and strung together seven straight winning games to capture the second set and establish a commanding 5-0 lead in the decider. After one hour and 48 minutes, Kuznetsova pulled out a 2-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory over the Ukrainian, winning on her third match-point opportunity.

The former World No. 2 Kuznetsova had been on the losing side of each of her last three matches against Svitolina, but in their first meeting since Rome last year, it was Kuznetsova who had all the answers.

“I haven’t been playing too well when competing, but today I was fighting and trying to accept that I can’t deliver the game I’ve been able to play on the practice court,” Kuznetsova said during her 11-minute virtual press conference that took on the character of being a confessional self-analysis of her victory.

The World No. 5 Svitolina represented the highest-ranked player that Kuznetsova had beaten this year and it was the first time this year she had come back to win after losing the first set.

Svitolina gave the No. 41 Kuznetsova due props during her virtual press conference. When Tennis TourTalk asked the World No. 5 what makes Kuznetsova such a great competitor, she said: “She’s always been a great fighter. She runs down lots of balls. She fights no matter what the score is. She’s always playing with a good attitude. I remember when she won her Grand Slams. She was fighting and giving all she could to win the match. That, I think, is what makes her such a champion.”

Next for Kuznetsova is unseeded No. 63 Barbora Krejcikova, who built upon her Sunday night upset of No. 16 Maria Sakkari by defeating No 51 Jelena Ostapenko of Latvia, 6-3, 6-1. The Czech, who is a former doubles World No. 1 and part of the No. 2-seeded doubles team with Katerina Siniakova, won 67 percent of her second-serve points and converted all five of her break-point chances against the 2017 French Open champion.

Around the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships

Among the other seeded winners:

• No. 8 Iga Swiatek of Poland, fresh from winning the Adelaide International two weeks ago, advanced with a 6-2, 6-4 win over 77th-ranked Japanese lucky loser Misaki Doi. The 19-year-old reigning Roland Garros champion hit six aces, won all but one of her first-serve points and broke Doi five times to improve her 2021 record to 10-2. She’s won her last six matches in a row.

Next, she faces No. 9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain, who reached the third round with a 6-4 6-2 win over No. 32 Amanda Anisimova in an hour and 25 minutes, aided by four breaks of the young American’s serve.

• No. 10 Elise Mertens is best on tour in winning capitalizing on second-serve return points, winning at a 68.1-percent clip. Against No. 49 Shelby Rogers of the United States, the World No. 18 from Belgium won 13 of 20 opportunities (65 percent) second-serve returns and converted five of seven break points to win for the 10th time out of 11 matches this year. Next, she will face No. 47 Caroline Garcia of France, who defeated Italian lucky loser Martina Trevisan, ranked 90th, 6-2, 6-4.

Among the upsets of the day:

• No. 4 seed Petra Kvitova of the Czech Republic retired from her second-round match against Jil Teichmann from Switzerland due to a right adductor injury. Teichmann was ahead 6-4, 3-4 after one hour and 18 minutes when the World No. 10, who won the Qatar Total Open last Saturday, ended the match.

Afterward, Kvitova said: “Unfortunately, since my semifinal in Doha, I felt my adductor. It didn’t get any better and in second set, it just got a little bit worse. I felt pain almost everywhere on that right leg. So, unfortunately, I couldn’t really move how I wanted and I didn’t want it to get worse.”

The 54th-ranked Swiss will face No. 31 Ons Jabeur of Tunisia, who took out No. 14 seed Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-2, in the final match of the day on Centre Court.

• No. 5 seed Kiki Bertens of the Netherlands, playing in just her second match since recovering from an Achilles injury, lost to 125th-ranked qualifier Tereza Martincova of the Czech Republic, 6-1, 6-4, to go 0-2 on the season. It was a career-best win for the Prague native, who was pushed to three sets in each of her previous three matches – against Lucie Hradecka and Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove in qualifying and Kristyna Pliskova in Sunday’s first round. This time, she won in straight sets in a comfortable one and 18 minutes for the second Top 20 win of her career.

• No. 12 seed Marketa Vondrousova was upset by American teenager Coco Gauff, who gave herself an early birthday present with her 3-6, 6-0, 6-4 victory over the Czech. Gauff, 16, who turns 17 on Saturday, has made a habit of playing three-set matches in her brief pro career. Tuesday’s tussle against Vondrousova was her 25th to go the distance in her 60 WTA main draw and qualifying matches. However, Gauff often saves her best for last, where she’s 17-8 in third-set deciders.

“It doesn’t bother me,” Gauff said after her victory. “Obviously, I like to close in two, but a win is a win and if it takes three sets, I’m willing to play three sets.”

With both Bertens and Vondrousova out of contention, it opens up the second quarter of the draw and Gauff and Martincova will do battle against each other on Wednesday.

Tuesday’s Dubai DFTC results

Wednesday’s Dubai DFTC order of play

What they’re saying

As one might expect, Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic was asked during her virtual press conference about the much-anticipated return by fellow Swiss Roger Federer in Doha on Wednesday:

“Everyone is counting the days,” Bencic said. “I thought he was going to play today and then I saw the schedule and I was like, ‘No! One more day, we have to wait.’ But it’s good because he’s coming back on my birthday, which is really good and I wish him best of luck.”

What they’re sharing on social media