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Top seeds march on in Abu Dhabi

Both top seeds survived tough challenges to reach the quarter-finals at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Open on Sunday, with Sofia Kenin and Elina Svitolina saving match points against Yulia Puntintseva and Ekaterina Alexandrova respectively.

And I guess it helps being a Grand Slam champion, knowing kind of what to do on those tough points, those tough moments, and I was able to find my rhythm by the end of the third set. Sofia Kenin

Also coming through was Aryna Sabalenka, the 4th seed, but 5th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza met her match in Maria Sakkari.

Kenin, who is struggling to find her form here, was on the brink of defeat against Putintseva, the 13th-seed from Kazakstan, but rallied past her second major scare of the tournament, 3-6 7-6(5) 6-4.

“I felt like today was mostly a mental match, because I practice with her quite a bit, and I know her game well, and she knows my game pretty well,” said Kenin, during her post-match press conference. “I didn’t play the way I wanted to play, but of course she played really well.

“And I guess it helps being a Grand Slam champion, knowing kind of what to do on those tough points, those tough moments, and I was able to find my rhythm by the end of the third set.”

The American fired off 35 winners against an inspired Putintseva, who held a match point when leading 6-5 in the second set only to see Kenin dig herself out of the hole and claw herself to victory in the 2 hour 30 minute encounter.

It was Kenin who held more easily at the start of the match, and Putintseva had to fight off a pair of break points as she established a 3-2 lead that she extended after the American let a 40-15 lead slip.

Putintseva’s accurate ground-strokes helped her claim the opening set, but Kenin soon found a way back, converting her 3rd break point of the 4th game to take a 3-1 lead.

Wielding one of the best backhands on tour, the American built a 5-2 advantage, only to watch more powerful returns from the Kazakh come at her to break back.

A second straight break gave Putintseva the chance to serve out the match at 6-5, but she wobbled, broken after failing to convert a match point and having no reply to another thunderous Kenin backhand.

Putintseva rebounded to take a 3-1 lead in the tiebreak but, once again, she could not hang on to her edge and Kenin won 6 of the last 7 points, another backhand winner levelling the match at a set all.

The backhand also proved to be her decisive weapon in the decider as she broke in the 5th game and then used consecutive forehand winners to give herself a 5-2, double break, lead.

Another surge from Putintseva, however, with a break and a hold, piled the pressure back on Kenin, but after saving a crucial break point, the American prompted a final forehand error from the Kazakh to earn a hard-fought berth in the quarter-finals.

The top will now face Maria Sakkari of Greece in the quarter-finals, after the 9th seed defeated No 5 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain earlier on Sunday.

Kenin has won both of her previous clashes with Sakkari, although they have not faced off since the 2018 US Open.

“Maria’s obviously playing really well, and if she’s on, it’s going to be tough,” said Kenin. “I know it’s going to be ball-striking, it’s just going to be flat-flat-flat, so I just have to somehow figure out how to handle it.”


Sofia Kenin came from behind to get past Yulia Putintseva in Abu Dhabi on Sunday

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Sakkari booked her spot with a crisp 7-5 6-4 win over Muguruza, the former World No 1 and two-time Grand Slam champion.

“Overall, I think I’m starting to feel like I want to feel in the season, during the tournaments, playing-wise,” said Sakkari, during her post-match press conference. “So I’m feeling good.

“I just see moments of the match and feel like I’m getting there, even though it’s the first tournament.

“I’m super happy that I can play this way, because other years I was struggling a lot in the first couple of weeks. Slowly, slowly, I’m feeling some things from my off-season.”

It took her an hour and 51 minutes to overcome the 15th-ranked Muguruza, firing 33 winners, including 11 aces, and converting 3 of her 9 break points.

By contrast, Muguruza could only muster up 5 winners in the match, and had only 10 fewer unforced errors than Sakkari.

“I think I was in trouble a lot of times during the match — when I say trouble, I mean break points down — and I think I came up with some good serves a few times when I needed them,” added Sakkari.


Maria Sakkari held firm against Garbiñe Muguruza, winning in straight sets

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Second-seeded Elina Svitolina had to get past 40 winners and 2 match points from Ekaterina Alexandrova to claw her way into the quarters after another 2 hours, 25 minute battle, 6-3 6-7(5) 7-6(8).

“I think [from] both sides, she was striking the ball really well,” Svitolina said, during her post-match press conference. “Even on the move, from almost every part of the court.

“So it was really tricky for me to come back from being 3-5 down. I was just trying to be focused on every point and not let this match take away the good tennis that I played in the first set.”

Svitolina took the first set comfortably enough, and served for the match in the second set only to see the 17th seed from Russia rally to win the tense tiebreak and break early in the deciding set.

The Ukrainian then staged a comeback of her own, taking the final 3 points of the final-set breaker to pick up her second win over Alexandrova.

There were 3 straight breaks to begin the match, the last of which gave Svitolina a 2-1 lead after a backhand winner down the line, and she held for 3-1, eventually extending her advantage with a second break.

Although Alexandrova stopped the run of games with a hold of her own, Svitolina held triple set point and a backhand error by the Russian clinched the opening set for the second seed in exactly half an hour.

The second set featured 3 breaks of serve by each, with Alexandrova the one rallying from behind each time, the last of which came when Svitolina served for the match at 5-4, dumping a forehand into the net on break point.

It went into a tiebreak, and Alexandrova took the initiative at 5-5, putting away an overhead to bring up set point and squaring the match at a set all after an angled backhand winner.

The 13th seed kept up her momentum, breaking in the 3rd game of the final set with a wicked forehand, after which an ace on game point put Alexandrova closer to victory as she led 4-2.

More vicious forehands from the Russian put her a game from the upset, but tasked with serving out the match, her forehand betrayed her, and an error from that side handed the break back to Svitolina.

As in the second set, the matter headed to a tiebreak where, again, Alexandrova used her forehand to twice bring up match point, but she failed to convert on both occasions.

After more excellent work by both players, including Alexandrova saving a match point, Svitolina ultimately prevailed at 9-8 when the Russian sent a forehand long on match point.

“I’m just enjoying myself playing in these conditions, and hopefully I can go even further this week,” added Svitolina, who meets Veronika Kudermetova, another Russian, in the quarter-final.

Kudermetova got past Spain’s Paula Badosa in three sets earlier on Sunday. 6-4 4-6 6-1, and upset Svitolina in their only previous match, which took place in Moscow in 2019.




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