Two Americans advanced at the Qatar Total Open on Tuesday, Madison Keys, who upset No 6 seed Belinda Bencic, and Jessica Pegula, with an impressive win over Qiang Wang, while Ons Jabeur and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova got past qualifiers to also reach the second round.
If I'm serving well, things are usually going well for me. I think it's a really important part of my game, something that I focused on a lot. Obviously tonight it showed that when I'm serving well and hitting my spots, I can get ahead in the point. Madison Keys
Keys, playing her first match since September, came out on top of the battle between two Top 20 players, 6-4 6-1, in just over an hour.
“I’m really happy with how I came out and played today,” the 2017 US Open finalist said in her post-match press conference. “I’m a little bit surprised with myself but hoping to keep the momentum going tomorrow.”
In her first meeting with Bencic since 2015, Keys powered 24 winners to 17 unforced errors and saved 4 of the 5 break points she faced.
Bencic, the World No 12, had won 6 of her past 8 matches and was playing just 3 days after her runner-up showing in Adelaide but was undone by 20 unforced errors, and won just 28 percent of points off of her second serve.
Strong forehands by Keys helped build an early 3-0 lead in the opener, which she extended to 5-3, but she was unable to serve out the set as Bencic’s improving shot selection forced errors from the American.
Nevertheless, Keys took the set with a crushing a forehand winner to break the Swiss in the next game.
Exceptionally deep returns by Keys earned her another early lead in the second moved her ahead 3-1 and a further superb return game gave her an additional break to love for 5-1.
The American coolly served out the match with one more love game, firing an ace to win her 10th straight point.
“If I’m serving well, things are usually going well for me,” said Keys, who won 83 percent of her first-service points. “I think it’s a really important part of my game, something that I focused on a lot.
“Obviously tonight it showed that when I’m serving well and hitting my spots, I can get ahead in the point.”
Keys faces Greece’s Maria Sakkari in the second round.
Compatriot Jessica Pegula, the World No 44, came through 3 rounds of qualifying over the weekend to secure her spot in the main draw and she took her chances against Wang, ranked No 35, in what appears to be an upset on paper, but reflects the form of both players this season.
The American, fresh off her maiden Grand Slam quarter-final at the Australian Open, needed just 1 hour and 15 minutes to advance, 6-2 6-1, while the Chinese, by way of contrast, has now fallen to 2-6 in 2021.
Tunisia’s Ons Jabeur picked up a 6-2 6-2 win over Anna Blinkova of Russia to also advance Tuesday, and she takes on the No 2 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic next, who received a first round bye.
There was plenty for Jabeur to be happy about in opening her campaign as she struck 25 winners to 17 unforced errors in blowing past Blinkova, and ending the match with a signature drop-shot at her second chance.
“Not surprising coming from me, though, huh?,” Jabeur initially responded when asked about the surprising choice.
While it wasn’t executed to her highest of standards, the tactic was enough to foil Blinkova, who scampared up in time, but netted her reply to fall after just 68 minutes on the court.
“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,” a smiling Jabeur reflected.
“I just wanted to surprise her, because I was like really preparing to hit a big forehand, but then at the last minute, just changed it up. It was close. She was really there to get the ball.
“I’m glad that I got away with that one. Sometimes if I’m feeling good and good on the court, I really like to mix it up with some drop shots, so the player would not know what I’m gonna do.
“I think today that really did help me on the court.”
A year ago on these courts, Jabeur stunned Pliskova in 3 sets to reach the quarter-finals but the Tunisian is expecting the former World No 1 to come out with extra motivation.
“It’s going to be a very tricky match,” she admitted. “I’m sure she’s gonna come on court really hungry to win, wants her revenge, but I will be ready for that.”
Russia’s Pavlyuchenkova dispatched Czech qualifier Kristyna Pliskova with relative ease, 6-2 6-3, in an hour 15 minutes to line up a hard-hitting second-round encounter with No 4 seed Petra Kvitova.
Elsewhere, another qualifier, Laura Siegemund, pulled off a first-round upset of Elena Rybakina from Kazakstan, 7-6(7) 7-6(5) in 2 hours and 29 minutes.
The German had lost both of her previous encounters with Rybakina in 2019, but tmanaged to hold off comeback attempts from her opponent in each set on this occasion.
Siegemund, World No 56 took the lead in both sets of match of contrasting styles.
The Roland Garros quarter-finalist used drop-shots and sudden injections of pace to keep Rybakina off-balance, and jumped to a 3-0 double-break lead out of the gate, and then a 5-3 advantage in the second set.
Rybakina battled back gamely, blending her easy power with finesse of her own, but was almost always kept on the back foot as Siegemund held firm despite seeing her leads being chipped away, and the German was rewarded at the business end of each set.
Siegemund, 32, saved a set point in the first-set tiebreak but ultimately won it as Rybakina’s backhand broke down on the final 2 points.
In the second, Siegemund missed a match point serving at 5-3, and another at 5-4, but wrapped up victory on her 4th with a service winner.
Japan’s Misaki Doi defeated Saisai Zheng of China, 6-4 6-3, to advance to a second-round matchup with top seed and World No 5 ranked Elina Svitolina of Ukraine, who received a bye.
Svitolina reached the Qatar Total Open semi-finals last year, and hopes to go one better this time round to lift ‘one of the most beautiful trophies’, the Golden Falcon..
Svitolina turned pro in 2010 and since then she has won 15 WTA singles titles, including the 2018 WTA Finals and 3 of 5 Premier 5-level tournaments in 2017, but she has never reached the final at the Khalifa International Tennis and Squash Complex.
“I really love this trophy. I’m really sad that I don’t have it in my collection yet because it’s one of the most beautiful trophies on the tour,” Svitolina said on Tuesday. “I’ll do my best to have this trophy in my collection.
The 26-year-old, who was one of the AO21 title contenders in last month, fell to Pegula in the 4th round in Melbourne, reckons she has a better chance this year in Doha.
“Last year was a bit tough for me in these two tournaments — Dubai and Doha. I was not in the right mindset,” she said. “I was not feeling good on the court.
“Now this year is a different story. I feel that I have a good chance to play well, but anyway, there are lots of good players and I have to bring my best game in each match.”
The Ukrainian, who has career-high ranking Word No 3 in 2017, also said she has moved on from the disappointing loss in Melbourne to focus on winning titles.
“I was playing really well in the beginning at Australian Open and I was feeling really good,” she said.
“I was really sad that I couldn’t go further than the fourth round. I think I could go much further, and for sure my goal was to win the tournament. Unfortunately, I did not play that match well but I have to move forward.
Talking about Doha conditions she added: “I always like to play here in Doha. This year is a bit different because I think the surface is a bit different because they made it for the Australian Open qualifiers, but I’m happy to be here.”
Svitolina starts her singles campaign on Wednesday with a second round match against Doi.