Highlights from the first round action at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
DUBAI, UAE – Barbora Strycova snatched up the last spot in the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships semifinals, upsetting No.17 Ana Ivanovic in straight sets, 7-6(5), 6-3.
Ivanovic, a three time quarterfinalist in Dubai, was looking for her first semifinal spot against Strycova. On paper their head-to-head record was one-sided: Ivanovic had won all three of their previous encounters in straight sets, never losing more than three games in a set.
“I had to change a little bit something,” Strycova said of her game plan against Ivanovic. “The previous matches I was hitting a little bit back, so I had to change the pace and stand a little bit closer. It was working pretty good and I felt good on my return.”
The Czech started the match ahead with a 4-2 lead. After a quick conversation with coach Nigel Sears, Ivanovic righted the ship and came back to win three games in a row to get ahead 5-4. The players stayed level to send the match into a tiebreaker. Ivanovic climbed to a 4-2 lead but a double fault at 5-3 up gave Strycova an in, which she took to rally back and clinch the tiebreak – as well as the opening set – at 7-6(5).
Ivanovic rebounded to start off the second set breaking Strycova at love, but Strycova dashed hopes of a comeback when she broke right back to level the score. The Czech pushed ahead to a 4-2 lead and didn’t look back, serving out the match at 6-3.
“I am very pleased,” Strycova said after the win. “It’s been a good match for me, and playing Ana is always tough because she’s such a big champion and a big player hitting the ball really hard. I’m happy with my performance today.”
Earlier in the day, Elina Svitolina backed up yesterday’s win over No.2 Garbiñe Muguruza by beating CoCo Vandeweghe 6-4, 1-6, 6-2.
Svitolina broke Vandeweghe early and took the first set 6-4, but Svitolina was in danger when the American got her powerful groundstrokes and heavy serve going in the second set. She broke Svitolina three times in the 28 minute set, leveling the match, 6-1.
Vandeweghe came out firing to a 2-0 lead in the final set but couldn’t hang on, forehands suddenly misfiring. Svitolina won six consecutive games to win the match, 6-2.
“I had a good start then I was struggling a bit,” Svitolina said after the match. “I think it was something in my head. I was just somewhere not on the court, but I was really happy that I could find a way to start the third set well.
“I was 2-0 down but I still felt that I was getting there.”
With the win, Svitolina is into her first Premier-level semifinal of the year where she is set to face Sara Errani – the Italian owns a 1-0 head to head record against her.
“If someone told me I would be in the @DDFTennis Semifinals, I wouldn't believe it!” -@BaraStrycova #WTA https://t.co/pjj0oLJJbT
— WTA (@WTA) February 18, 2016
DUBAI, UAE – Caroline Garcia booked the first spot into the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships semifinals after a dominant win against Andrea Petkovic, 6-3, 6-4.
Into her career first Premier-level semifinal, 22-year-old Garcia continued turning promise into achievements as she took on the No.28 Petkovic, who had defeated her in both of her previous encounters.
“It was very difficult conditions, very windy,” Garcia said afterwards. “It’s never easy to play in these conditions so you have to be focused.
“I played pretty aggressive today but you have to against [Petkovic] – she’s a big fighter.”
Garcia broke early in the opening set to go up 3-1, staying toe-to-toe with the big hitting German. Petkovic’s serve, which had been ailing all match long, misfired at the worst time, producing three double faults to give Garcia set points before sending a forehand long to hand the French player the first set.
Garcia once again broke serve and consolidated quickly to start the second set with a 2-0 lead, but this time Petkovic fired back to stop the bleeding, breaking back and holding to level it out at 2-2. Garcia, a regular feature in the doubles draw, was deadly at the net and with her forehand, closing out the match at 6-4.
Petkovic’s second gave her plenty of trouble – she hit 10 double faults during the match – and Garcia masterfully exploited the weakness.
“That’s one where I was looking to improve, to put the pressure on my opponent, especially on her second serve,” Garcia said after the match. “She did some double faults so I tried to put a bit more pressure for those free points.”
In the second quarterfinal of the afternoon, Sara Errani came back from a set to down to defeat the resurgent Madison Brengle, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.
More to come…
DOHA, Qatar – Serena Williams appeared unstoppable in the summer of 2010; the American had just won her fourth Wimbledon title and was the undisputed World No.1 when an out-of-nowhere foot injury ended her season.
“I left ranked No.1,” Williams said nearly a year later in Eastbourne. “That’s what I miss most, just being on top of the game and just playing some really good tennis, the challenges of all the players.”
Things went from bad to worse when her return to the game was further delayed by breathing troubles that turned out to be something even more serious: a pulmonary embolism.
“I honestly just thought I was out of shape, that I needed to get on the treadmill or something. They just said it could have gotten a lot serious a day later or two days later. It could have been really not good.
“It could have possibly been career-ending, but for the grace of God I got there in time and I was able to recover from it.
“I’m just taking it one day at a time. I mean, I’m not just preparing for today or Wimbledon. I’m preparing for the rest of my career.”
From a nadir of No.172 in July of 2011, Williams went on a tear that summer, winning 18 straight matches to reach the US Open final.
Clicking into gear with gusto in 2012, the American reclaimed her Wimbledon crown – her first major title in exactly two years – added an Olympic Gold medal at the Summer Games in Lodon, and capped a near-perfect season with wins at the US Open and WTA Finals.
She came into that next year’s Qatar Total Open having won 56 of her last 59 matches, with a run to the semifinals all she needed to return to No.1. From 4-1 down in the final set, Williams roared past Petra Kvitova 3-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals to cap an emotional comeback.
“I don’t know how I did it – I really don’t know,” she said after the match. “I just hung in there and she was playing so well. Every time I looked around she was hitting a winner.
“I just tried to stay in there.”
Williams has been atop the WTA rankings ever since, adding six more majors to her current total of 21, and is set to pass Martina Navratilova for consecutive weeks at No.1 at 157 straight weeks.
Steffi Graf remains the final frontier for the American, is in position to pass the German’s haul of 22 major titles and 186 straight weeks at No.1.
“In my particular situation, I never thought I’d play again,” she told press that night in Doha. “Then I thought I’d never be able to win tournaments or Grand Slams. No.1 was so far off. It was always a dream, but, you know, I was No.1 when tragedy struck, and it was just an awful thing to happen.
“So I’m happy that I’m back.”
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.
A deeper look at the Dubai upsets: After three days of play at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Champions, no seeds remain in the tournament. This is the first time the seeds went winless at a WTA event and just the fourth time no seeds advanced to the quarterfinals (2014 Bastad, 2012 Bogota, 2009 Hobart).
Needless to say, this week’s results in Dubai are a statistical anomaly, especially for a Premier tournament. The withdrawals of World No.1 Serena Williams, Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, and Australian Open semifinalist Agnieszka Radwanska — the top three women on the Road to Singapore leaderboard — reshuffled the top seeds in Dubai and injected some level of unpredictability in a tournament where conditions are already tricky. The balls tend to fly and the courts have been recently resurfaced. Control is at a premium.
But a closer look at the top seeds’ opening round match-ups does provide some context for this unprecedented exodus. For No.5 seed Belinda Bencic and No.7 seed Roberta Vinci, who played the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy final on Sunday, both women arrived less than 24 hours before their opening round matches. Bencic lost to Jelena Jankovic, no slouch of a player herself, while Vinci looked understandably sluggish in a 6-0, 4-6, 6-3 loss to qualifier Yaroslava Shvedova.
As for the remaining six seeds:
– Ana Ivanovic d. No.1 Simona Halep 7-6(2), 6-2: It’s been a sputtering start to the season for Halep, who dropped to 3-3 this season. Halep took a late wildcard into Dubai after deciding to postpone nasal surgery. Her mantra from the start of the season has been simple and repetitive: Matches, matches, matches. Halep has yet to play herself into form and the rustiness, particularly on the big points, shows.
“I’m disappointed that I lost but it’s okay,” Halep said. “I feel good. Physically I’m okay. I have no pain anywhere. It’s good, and the most important thing is that I’m healthy.”
As for Ivanovic, she’s rebounded well from a disappointing 2015 season. After going 0-2 to start the year her level has improved week after week. She was dominated Madison Keys for most of their third round match at the Australian Open, but get nervous in the end, losing 4-6, 6-4, 6-4. She made the semifinals last week in St. Petersburg, only to lose to the slicing-and-dicing wiles of Vinci.
But Ivanovic carried that form into Dubai this week. She blasted No.35 Daria Gavrilova off the court in the first round, losing just one game. And her win over Halep on Wednesday was her first top 5 win since the 2014 WTA Finals, when she beat…Simona Halep.
– Elina Svitolina d. No.2 Garbiñe Muguruza 7-6(3), 6-3: Svitolina has been playing at a good level. It just hasn’t been obvious after a surprising second round loss to Naomi Osaka at the Australian Open. Could her decision to hire Justine Henin as a coaching consultant inject a sense of urgency in the Ukrainian’s game? Her improvement over the years has been steady but the Henin hiring may just signal a new level of hunger and ambition.
Much like Halep, Muguruza’s 2016 start has struggled to gain traction. A foot injury left her undercooked in Melbourne, where she lost in the third round to Barbora Strycova. Against Svitolina she hit 68 unforced errors in two sets.
“I’m not really finding my game, so I think I have to rest a little bit and concentrate again and work hard and eventually come back to the tournament to play again,” Muguruza said after the loss. “I think I’m not really ready to compete. I need to work a little bit more. My shots, my fitness. So we’ll see.”
She told reporters she’s still dealing with her foot injury and her participation in next week’s Qatar Total Open is up in the air. “If I’m not 100%, I don’t think it’s necessary,” she said. “So we’ll see these couple of days.”
– Caroline Garcia d. No.3 Carla Suárez Navarro 4-6. 6-4, 6-3: The young Frenchwoman has an uncanny ability to use a strong Fed Cup weekend as a springboard to confident play on tour. She was the hero in France’s win over Italy two weeks ago, scoring singles wins over Sara Errani and Camila Giorgi.
– Madison Brengle d. No.4 Petra Kvitova 0-6, 7-6(1), 6-3: At I highlighted in my last Notebook, Kvitova is at a crossroads right now. She drops to 1-5 this season, with that sole win coming against No. 143 Luksika Kumkhum in the first round of the Australian Open, and announced a surprising split with long-time coach David Kotyza. The high-flying conditions in Dubai have not been easy for the Czech. Setting aside a title run in 2013, she has not made it past the second round and lost in the opening round at four of five appearances.
– CoCo Vandeweghe d. No.6 Karolina Pliskova 7-6(5), 6-1: The two split their two prior meetings, so it’s not like this result was out of the blue for Vandeweghe. But it’s been difficult to get a read on Pliskova’s form in 2016. She had a fantastic Fed Cup run two weeks ago, scoring a three-set win over Halep. In Sydney she earned two good wins over Ivanovic and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova. But she has yet to win more than two matches at a tour event.
– Julia Goerges d. No.8 Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-0, 6-1: The erratic nature of her game persists — we’re talking about Goerges here — but the German has been very good this season. Kuznetsova had little chance against her in the first round, with Goerges blasting 28 winners and 15 unforced errors.
Projected Rankings: The big news on Monday: Roberta Vinci will finally make her Top 10 debut. Despite losing in the first round she’ll move up three spots after Suarez Navarro, Lucie Safarova, and Venus Williams drop.
Next week’s projected rankings:
3. Radwanska (+1)
4. Halep (-1)
7. Bencic (+2, career-high)
9. Pennetta (-2)
10. Vinci (+3, Top 10 debut)
11. Suarez Navarro
12. Safarova (-2)
13. Venus (-1)
14. Azarenka (or Ivanovic wins the title)
15. Bacsinszky (or Azarenka if Ivanovic wins the title)
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.