The much-anticipated Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open was opened by Daria Kasatkina, who won the first match of new season on Wednesday by beating Qiang Wang, 6-2 3-6 6-2.
For many of the players, it’s difficult with the protocols and everything. I’m OK to sit a long time in the room. Daria Kasatkina
A minor blip in the second set did little to hold back the Russian, who is a former finalist at the nearby Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
Kasatkina’s greater variety and deep groundstrokes held the edge against the Chinese World No 34, who carried her momentum into the decider by breaking for a 2-0 lead but the Russian quickly levelled and sealed the win with a third successive break of Qiang’s serve.
Kasatkina will face either 12th seed Karolina Muchova or Danka Kovinic in the second round.
Taking place at Zayed Sports City International Tennis Centre, the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open is a new addition to the women’s calendar for 2021 and was created to ensure players could compete in a tournament before heading to Australia for three weeks.
It is the only warm-up tournament outside Melbourne, after which, players will either head to Australia on charter flights before entering quarantine, or travel the short distance to Dubai to play Australian Open qualifying.
“The first match after a long stop is never easy,” Kasatkina said. “I was not that nervous but I felt my stomach a little bit.”
Kasatkina added she didn’t mind spending time alone, making her better placed than most to adapt to quarantine measures ahead of the Australian Open.
“For many of the players, it’s difficult with the protocols and everything,” Kasatkina said. “I’m OK to sit a long time in the room.”
Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit, seeded 10th, was one of two seeds to fall on the opening day, losing to Russian Veronika Kudermetova, 7-5 6-1, while Donna Vekic, the No 16 from Croatia, was outlasted by America’s Bernarda Pera, 7-6(10) 2-6 6-4.
Maria Sakkari, the No 9 seed from Greece, kicked off her 2021 campaign with a resounding win over teenager Anastasia Potapova, 6-4 6-2.
The World No 22 took 86-minutes to outgun the 101st-ranked Russian, avenging a final set tiebreak loss to her in the 2017 Miami Open qualifying rounds, Potapova’s first-ever appearance in a singles draw at a WTA event.
Sakkari took control, hitting 18 winners to Potapova’s 12 during the match, and converting 3 of her 8 break points while never dropping serve.
“I worked a lot on my serve in, let’s say, the last nine months,” Sakkari told the media during her post-match press conference. “It’s going really well, I have to say. I’m super pleased with the way I’m serving. I’m getting good results inside the court from my serve.”
19-year-old Potapova, a former Wimbledon junior champion, was undone by 23 unforced errors, including 6 double faults.
“It was kind of like a survival situation when you were playing the points,” said Sakkari, who marvelled at the fast speed of the court. “Especially with new balls, the balls were coming quick. Serving was one of the most important things today.”
In the second round, Sakkari could face another teenager in Coco Gauff, if the 16-year-old American can get past Norway’s Ulrikke Eikeri in their first-round clash.
Ons Jabeur, the No 15 seed from Tunisia, claimed her second win in two meetings over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 7-6(3) 6-3, to move into the second round.
“To be honest, it was a good one for me,” Jabeur told the press, after her victory. “It was a tough match, not an easy first round or first match, but I went there with the spirit like, I’m not afraid, I’m just going to go in and give it all.”
World No 31 Jabeur had won their lone previous meeting in three sets at Dubai in 2017, but this time around, the Tunisian got the job done in straight sets, needing an hour and 29 minutes to outlast 38th-ranked Pavlyuchenkova.
Jabeur dodged two set points at 5-4 in the opening frame, ending the match with 31 winners.
“[Pavlyuchenkova] plays amazing, and if you go a little bit back and not dominate, of course she will hit the ball good, and she wants to take control,” said Jabeur. “So the point of the whole match was for me to take control more, to mix it up a little bit.”
“It was fun, to be honest,” the Tunisian added. “I loved that my drop-shot was really good today. I loved that I made a few nice shots. I’m feeling good, I’m feeling fit and amazing on the court, so hopefully I can continue playing this way and even better.”
“I have to give credit also to my serve,” Jabeur continued. “I’ve been practicing a lot of serves in the pre-season, and I’m trying to go full power, even if sometimes it doesn’t go.”
In the second round, Jabeur, who became the first Arab woman to reach a Grand Slam singles quarter-final at last year’s Australian Open, will face either Wang Yafan of China or a qualifier to be determined
Later on Day 1 in Abu Dhabi, Yulia Putintseva, the 13th seed from Kazakstan, defeated Italy’s Martina Trevisan, 6-3 6-3, to advance to round 2, while Canada’s latest teenage prospect, Leylah Annie Fernandez, won her opening match of the year, defeating another Italian, the World No 96, Jasmine Paolini, 6-4 6-2.
The 18-year-old won more than 50 per cent of points on Paolini’s first serve and converted on 5 of 8 break points.
Fernandez will face the winner of a match between No. 11 seed Jennifer Brady of the USA, and Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia in the second round.
The Canadian is aiming high in 2021, hoping to crack the Top 10 by the end of the year.
It’s a big dream and she makes no secret about her desire to make a stunning rise of the rankings to dwarf the significant improvements she made in 2020.
“It’s a little private I don’t want to give too much details, but we did have a team meeting, we did talk about the positives that I had [in 2020] and also the negatives, and we were trying to figure a plan to work on the negative and also be working on the positive to be able to get into the Top 10, this year,” the confident Canadian told reporters in a virtual press conference after her win.
“I think that this season I’ve matured a lot, from last season, I’ve learned a lot from the professionals, from the Top 10 and I’m trying to be more like them and to kind of improve my game in that way, so that’s why my goal is to be Top 10 at the end of the season so that can achieve my dreams of winning some Grand Slams, be No1 in the world, and I think that would be a big step for me.
“It would obviously be hard but I think this will be a good challenge to accept,” she added.
Currently at 88 in the world, Fernandez knows that reaching the Top 10 by the end of the season is far-fetched, but she relishes the pressure that comes with such ambition.
“I think that’s good for me,” she said. “Obviously there will be a bit of pressure, but you know pressure is a privilege
“If you don’t have pressure then that means I’m doing something wrong.
“I’m loving that I have that pressure, I’m loving that there’s something to achieve and the challenge won’t be easy, so it will be an interesting year, and we will see how it goes at the end.”
In other results on Wednesday, Belgian Kirsten Flipkens came through three long sets to defeat Germany’s Laura Siegmund, 5-7 7-5 6-4; Barbora Krejcikova from the Czech Republic defeated American Jamie Loeb, 6-1 6-3; Australia’s Ajla Tomljanovic beat Lin Zhu from China, 6-2 7-7(1); and Paula Badosa from Spain outran Latvia’s Anastasia Sevastova, 6-2 5-7 6-2.