Dubai | Vekic stuns Sabalenka as Swiatek sees off Stephens

World No 2 Aryna Sabalenka returned to the WTA Tour after winning her second Australian Open title, and suffered an ignominious defeat at the hands of Donna Vekic in the opening round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday, but top-seeded Iga Swiatek passed the stern test set by Sloan Stephens to advance to the Last 16 where she will meet Elina Svitolina.

I didn't have big expectations coming to Dubai. Told my coach that I'm taking this week as half holidays. I can tell you, I spent more time on the beach than on the court. Maybe that's a good way going forward. Donna Veci

Both received 1st-round byes, and while Sabalenka bowed out 6-7(5) 6-3 6-0 to Vekic in the second match of the day on centre court, Swiatek saw off Stephens, 6-4 6-4, in the night session.

Playing her first match since successfully defending her title at Melbourne Park, Sabalenka blew a 7-6, 2-0 lead to succumb to her Croatian challenger in 2 hours and 22 minutes.

It was always going to be a tricky match for the Belarusian, who trailed 2-5 in her head-to-head record against the Croatian, ranked 31 in the world.

Vekic was aggressive throughout the encounter, and advances to take on big-hitting Romanian Sorana Cirstea, who upset Veronika Kudermetova, the 13th seeded Russian, 6-1 6-4.

“At all times I didn’t give up,” said Vekic, who is seeking the first WTA 1000 quarter-final of her career. “I didn’t stop believing that I can win. I just kept fighting.

“To be honest, I didn’t have big expectations coming to Dubai. Told my coach that I’m taking this week as half holidays.

“I can tell you, I spent more time on the beach than on the court. Maybe that’s a good way going forward,” she added with a laugh.

In the windy but warm conditions in Dubai, Sabalenka recovered from a break down then squandered a 5-3 lead before securing the opening set on her 6th opportunity at the 69-minute mark.

The 2nd seed then took a 2-0 lead in the second, but Vekic struck back and claimed another crucial break in game 8 to level the contest and force the decider.

With the wind now firmly in her sails, Vekic strung a 9-game winning run, out-hitting Sabalenka to claim a 3rd set bagel, and book her place in the Last 16.

Later, Sabalenka blamed unfavourable conditions for her defeat.

“I feel like the conditions here don’t fit me well at all,” she said. “It’s really tricky for me to compete here in Dubai. Really tricky court for me. It’s super-fast for me. Like no rhythm at all.

“I’ll stay here for a couple of days, then I’m going to move to LA and keep practising, keep fixing problems which happened today. Hopefully I’ll be in better shape for Indian Wells.”


Aryna Sabalenka blew a one set lead with a break in the second as she unravelled under Donna Vekic's aggressive onslaught on Day 3 in Dubai

© Christopher Pike/Getty Images

Sabalenka was filmed doing a shopping spree at Dubai Airport and will be heading back there, having squandered a week that could have seen her move closer to Swiatek in the WTA Rankings, but, instead she has handed the World No 1 further impetus.

The first set was a closely ran affair with Sabalenka never settling, losing her serve to go 2-1 down, although Vekic could not take advantage, and while the Belarusian had the chance to go 5-3 up, she had to rely on a tiebreak to claim the one-set lead.

Vekic, though, started to find her range and crucially broke at 5-3 before serving out the second, and Sabalenka began to unravel, helping the Croatian to make swift work of the decider, in which the World No 2 barely got a look-in on Vekic’s serve.

With a combination of brilliant serving, fearless hitting off the ground and a thumping 42 winners, Vekic had recovered from a set and a break down to claim a stunning win over Sabalenka.

“[In the] second set, I was just trying to go for it a bit more, because she was definitely out-powering me in the important points in the first set,” said Vekic, who defeated Sabalenka at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020. “I was like, ‘OK, if you want to have a chance of winning, you have to go for it more’.”

The 27-year-old achieved that goal with aplomb, breaking 7 times and firing down 14 aces.

Vekic also made a dozen fewer unforced errors than Sabalenka, for whom old demons resurfaced in the form of 8 double-faults – half of which came in the deciding set, where her game and composure fell apart.

“I would say that the whole match I was leading, I was winning,” Sabalenka said afterwards. “I won the first set. I was up with a break. [But] I didn’t feel like I was up. The level was so bad today from me.

“At the end she stepped in and started playing way [more] aggressively, because she saw that I’m not playing my best at all. I think that’s why she came back from that score that easily, because it was just like, who’s more lucky, you know? The level wasn’t there at all.”


Iga Swiatek faced a stern test against Sloane Stephens but prevailed in straight sets to advance to the Last 16 in Dubai

© Christopher Pike/Getty Images

Later, starting the night session, Swiatek, who clinched her third consecutive Doha title on Saturday, had to dig deep to overcome an on-song Stephens in a tussle that saw 8 breaks of serve and a combined 23 break points.

“We had a lot of tight games,” Swiatek said on court afterwards. “I really needed to perform a little bit better in those important moments because I couldn’t convert some break points. But I’m happy that at the end I did.

“Yeah, it wasn’t easy. It’s nice that I played even a longer match here so I could adjust to the surface.”

With the win, Swiatek improved to 3-0 in her career against the 2017 US Open champion, and has never lost a set in any of those matches.

She came close in Tuesday’s affair, though, as she was down a break 3 times in the first set, at 2-1, 3-2 and 4-3, but she won 3 straight games on the trot, including 12 of the last 14 points, to avoid dropping a set to Stephens for the first time.

In the second, both women held serve across the first 9 games, and combined to save all 13 break points they faced, before Swiatek broke Stephens’ serve for a 5th and final time to wrap up the win in an hour and 57 minutes.

“I just need to go a level up, but just a little bit,” Swiatek added. “There weren’t, like, many important changes I could do to make my game better because I knew I just needed to play better just a little bit, and it’s all going to be fine.”

Swiatek takes on two-time Dubai champion Elina Svitolina in the Last 16 for a spot in the quarter-finals.

The pair have split 2 prior meetings, with Svitolina winning their last match in the quarter-finals at Wimbledon last summer.

“I just have to be ready and take a lesson from Wimbledon and try to play my game,” Swiatek said.


Elina Svitolina, who has won the Dubai title twice, dispatched Tatjana Maria and will line up against top seed Iga Swiatek for a spot in the quarters in Dubai

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

The winner of that match will face the winner of the 3rd-round affair between China’s No 5 seed Zheng Qinwen, the Australian Open finalist, and Anastasia Potapova.

Zheng rallied from a set down to defeat Japanese qualifier Nao Hibino, 5-7 6-2 6-2, on Tuesday, while Potapova rolled to a 6-0 6-3 win over Italian lucky loser Lucia Bronzetti.

“I’ve been sick for the past five days, I haven’t been feeling well, breathing hard,” said Zheng the Chinese World No 7, who had her vitals checked and took some medication before closing out the win.“I just told myself keep going, everything can happen at a certain point. Never give up, even if I feel bad like today. I have to say thank you to myself to push hard for this match and win.”

Svitolina was a 6-3 6-3 winner over Germany’s Tatjana Maria, and the Ukrainian now has 19 wins in her career in Dubai, tying Venus Williams for the 4th-most in tournament history.

“We’re trying to take it one day at a time,” said Svitolina, who continues to struggle with a back issue. “It’s a mixture of feelings, to be fair. I had a good start to the season, playing great tennis, and then getting injured again. It’s tough mentally.

“Now we’re trying to recover for every single match. Still pain here and there, but trying to work with my body as much as possible. I had a good training before and that’s why I was able to win these two matches. But mentally it hasn’t been easy for me because I had to skip the end of the last season, and then in Australia.”

Earlier on Centre Court, 8th seed Maria Sakkari snapped a 3-match losing streak and claimed her first-ever Dubai main-draw win at her 4th attempt, with a 6-2 6-4 triumph over in-form American Emma Navarro.

After suffering opening round exits in Abu Dhabi and Doha, the Greek was admittedly nervous ahead of her clash with Navarro, who is already a title-winner in 2024 and has amassed 13 victories in the first two months of the season.

“It was very tough. Last night I couldn’t sleep just because I was overthinking about it and it wasn’t easy,” Sakkari admitted. “No one wants to keep losing first round. But I told myself to treat it as the first match of the season.

“Obviously it wasn’t my best, best tennis but it was good enough to beat a top-form player,” said Sakkari, who faces Jasmine Paolini next, after the Italian dispatched Canadian Leylah Fernandez, 6-3 6-4.


Elena Rybakina, the No 4 seed, advanced after Victoria Azarenka retired with an undisclosed injury at set all in Dubai

© Christopher Pike/Getty Images

4th seed Elena Rybakina also advanced to the 3rd-round when her opponent Victoria Azarenka from Belarus retired with an undisclosed injury, having taken the first set before the Moscow-born Kazakh levelled the match.

The former World No 1called the trainer between sets and decided to pull out of the contest to avoid further damage, sending Rybakina to a Last 16 meeting with Polish qualifier Magdalena Frech, who battled past Petra Martic from Croatia, 6-4 1-6 6-2.

Elsewhere, Wimbledon champion and No 7 seed Marketa Vondrousova came through 6-1 5-7 6-2 over Peyton Stearns, scoring her 3rd win over the American in the past 8 months, and the Czech, who conjured up several delightful points as she wove her web of spins, will next face Liudmila Samsonova after the 12th-seeded Russian advanced via a walkover after her compatriot Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova withdrew due to illness.

Coco Gauff, the 19-year old No 3 seed, took out Italian lucky loser Elisabetta Cociaretto, 6-1 7-5, and the American will take on Zheng next, while 9th seed Jelena Ostapenko from Latvia was a 6-4 6-3 winner over Swiss wild-card Lulu Sun and will face Karolina Pliskova after the Czech fought her way past another wild-card, American Ashlyn Krueger, 6-7(2) 6-3 6-4.


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