On a cloudy day in Doha, Australian Open finalist Jennifer Brady was knocked out in the first round of the Qatar Total Open by Anett Kontaveit, while Victoria Azarenka, Garbiñe Muguruza, Jelena Ostapenko and Angelique Kerber all won their opening-round matches.
"[Conchita Martinez] She's always with us, watching my practices and on my ear, kind of with my buds. I connect them and I can hear her. I even practiced one day, part of the practice with the ear phone and just tried to have a laugh also out of all this, because it's tough and we have to adapt all the time to every circumstance. But so far we are finding a way. Garbiñe Muguruza
Estonia’s Kontaveit kicked off her campaign by applying significant pressure on Brady, the 7th seed from America, in the opening exchanges, setting the stage for an early upset.
Brady, who had won 9 of her last 11 matches prior to Doha, struggled to get into her stride with the Estonian dominating the opening set, repeatedly forcing Brady off balance.
“I watched Jennifer’s journey at the Australian Open… I was expecting a very difficult match and I’m very pleased to get to the second round,” said Kontaveit, who is coached by Britain’s Nigel Sears.
The Estonian was one of the players forced into two weeks of hard quarantine in Australia ahead of AO21 at which she lost to Shelby Rogers in the 3rd round.
“It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t something we’d done before,” she said.
Kontaveit started the match with a bang, hitting 3 clean return winners in Brady’s first service game.
The World No 24 continued in that vein, breaking Brady 3 times while never facing a break point herself, striking 17 winners to just 9 unforced errors as the Estonian claimed her first Top 20 win of the season in just 53 minutes.
Next up for Kontaveit is former World No 1 Angelique Kerber from Germany, who got her Doha campaign underway with a 6-4 6-2 win over Cagla Buyukakcay.
A former finalist at Doha in 2014, Kerber had to charge back from a 1-4 deficit in the opening set before stopping the Turkish wild card.
Another former World No 1 Muguruza got past Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova, 6-2 7-6(4), in her 6th straight appearance in the Doha main draw, having reached the final here in 2018.
The Spaniard has been defeated by only Top 30 players in 2021 and kept that streak going with a 1-hour, 45-minute win against the World No 34.
A quarter-finalist in Qatar last year, Muguruza lost to Ashleigh Barty, who is absent this year, and her imposing 1.8 metre frame helped to assert her dominance over Kudermetova in the first set.
In the second set, Kudermetova stopped Muguruza from serving out the match at both 5-4 and 6-5, but the Spaniard stayed steely in the tiebreak, finding strong drive volleys when it counted to push her through to the second round.
She fended off several break points against her serve, avoiding her clash against the Russian going the distance as did their last tussle in Dubai.
Muguruza won the hard-fought tiebreak for the second set despite initially falling behind, eliminating the need for a third.
“I was expecting a very tough match,” Muguruza said in her post-match press conference. “Veronika was a very tough opponent. Just happy with this win.
“We played a year ago, and I remember it was a tough match. Happy to have closed it in two sets.”
Muguruza sets up an intriguing second-round encounter with No 3 seed and defending champion Aryna Sabalenka from Belarus.
“I think [Sabalenka is] playing great,” Muguruza said. “Last year and this year I saw she’s winning titles and playing good tennis. I’m excited to face these top players.”
Muguruza is having to adjust to her coach, Conchita Martinez, being confined in hotel quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 on her Doha arrival and they are using technology to maintain contact.
“She’s always with us, watching my practices and on my ear, kind of with my buds. I connect them and I can hear her,” Muguruza explained.
“I even practiced one day, part of the practice with the ear phone and just tried to have a laugh also out of all this, because it’s tough and we have to adapt all the time to every circumstance. But so far we are finding a way.”
Qatar has recorded 118 new cases per 100,000 people in the past 7 days, up 2 percent from the week before.
Spectators are required to present a contact tracing app, undergo temperature checks and wear masks at all times, while attendance is limited by law to 20 percent of capacity.
In what was probably the best match of the day, 2-time Doha champion Azarenka ousted 2-time runner-up Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-2 6-3, to book her spot in the round 2 after an hour and 42 minutes.
The Belarusian converted 3 of her 4 break points in the opening set, which, at 44 minutes, was lengthier than the scoreline suggests as Kuznetsova nearly matched Azarenka in winners in the opener, but had 5 more unforced errors.
A 2-game stretch in the second proved pivotal as Azarenka’s solid returning earned her a break for 3-2, before she fought off 5 break points in a protracted game to hold for 4-2 to maintain her advantage.
Azarenka missed 3 match points when serving for the match at 6-2, 5-2, but snagged the win in the next game, converting her 6th to break to advance.
“I definitely missed the last six years I wanted to come [to Doha],” Azarenka said. “We’ve been playing against each other for so long.”
Latvia’s Jelena Ostapenko, the 2017 Roland Garros champion, put in one of her best performances of recent months, with a commanding win over Kiki Bertens, 6-0 6-2, who was playing her first match since October.
After the French Open, the Dutchwoman posted a photo of herself in hospital with a cast on her left leg shooting a smile and thumbs up at the camera, writing that achilles pain had ‘bothered me too much lately in training and games’.
Ostapenko, who reached the second WTA singles final of her career in Doha 5 years ago, hit 26 winners to 19 unforced errors, a sturdy ratio for her aggressive style of play.
Bertens, a former World No 4, kept her first-serve percentage solid but her powerful play resulted in only 6 winners on the day.
Ostapenko zipped through the first set and pulled away in the second thanks to some cracking forehands for a 5-1 lead.
Bertens, though, converted her first break-point opportunity to thwart Ostapenko’s first chance to serve out the match.
The Latvian took control in the next game, however, slamming a crosscourt backhand winner to complete the match in just 53 minutes.
“The foot was fine today so I think that didn’t affect me at all,” said Bertens. “But I think I didn’t have match readiness getting into today. Jelena was playing really well.”
Greece’s Maria Sakkari also advanced into the second round, defeating Mayar Sherif from Egypt, 6-0 6-3.
In the doubles, former World No 1 Sania Mirza from India made a winning return to the WTA Tour, partnering with Slovenia’s Andreja Klepac to beat Ukraine’s Nadiia Kichenok & Lyudmyla Kichenok, 6-4 6-7(7) [10-5] to reach the quarter-finals.
It was Mirza’s first match in 12 months since playing in Doha last year after which all competition was put on hold due to the pandemic.
In January Mirza revealed that she contracted coronavirus at the beginning of the year and had to isolate from her 2-year-old child, adding that the virus is no joke and everyone should take every precaution possible.