CHARLESTON, SC, USA - No.13 seed Sofia Kenin steadily worked her way to the first WTA clay court win of her career 7-5, 6-4 in one hour and 25 minutes over wildcard and former champion Sabine Lisicki to move into the second round of the Volvo Car Open.
Prior to today's match, the 20-year-old was 0-3 in WTA main draws on clay, including a 6-3, 6-2 first-round loss to Ashleigh Barty in Charleston last year, and just 1-6 on the terre battue at WTA level overall, with her sole win coming over Sabina Sharipova in Roland Garros qualifying in 2017. By contrast, Lisicki's greatest tournament victory came at this site exactly a decade ago when the German lifted her first trophy - her sole title at Premier level out of her four to date.
Lisicki has been beset by sundry injuries in recent years: the 29-year-old's most recent Top 200 year-end finish was in 2016, with surgery to her bicep tendon the most recent setback. Though a run to the Mumbai 125K final at the end of last year, losing only to Luksika Kumkhum, provided some hope, today's loss means that the 2013 Wimbledon runner-up is yet to win a set in four outings this year.
Nonetheless, for much of the first set it was Lisicki who seemed more at ease on the green clay. Racking up five aces within her first three service games, the World No.299 demonstrated both power and patience, keeping a cool head in longer rallies when she needed to but wasting no time in punishing Kenin's 51% first serve percentage by hammering return winners to every corner and line.
"It was a tough match against a tough player, and I wasn't feeling the best movement-wise," admitted Kenin afterwards. "So I just had to get through it. I know on clay you've got to get a lot of balls back, you've got to have the legs, you've got to slide - which I haven't been, so it was brutal."
One such backhand boomer sealed a break for 5-3 for Lisicki. But when called upon to serve the set out, the former World No.12's accuracy deserted her: an ill-advised dropshot into the net, a fourth double fault and a shanked backhand extended a lifeline to Kenin, which the American seized with a backhand return winner of her own.
The momentum switch was as absolute as it had been sudden. Reeling off six straight games, Kenin took decisive control. Although she had played second fiddle in terms of outright aggression, the Hobart champion's shot selection was cannier: whereas a rattled Lisicki had abandoned patience in favor of either go-for-broke return winners or, more frequently, shanks from every part of the court - one of which wasted a set point at 5-4 - Kenin was picking her moments more judiciously.
A smart move forward and neat volley sealed another break of the Lisicki serve for 6-5; on the first set point of her own Kenin picked the perfect moment to send her first ace down the tee; and a fizzing forehand down the line continued her momentum into the second set to go up an immediate break.
"I knew that she had a tough serve and I needed to adjust to it," said Kenin. "And I think I did a good job, which is why she didn't serve that many aces after [serving for the first set]."
With the Acapulco finalist seemingly cruising at 3-1, 40-0, Lisicki gathered herself to mount some resistance, landing return winners and tracking dropshots to reel Kenin back and regain the break. But for all of the four-time WTA titlist's 30 flashy winners, Kenin's ability to manage the ebbs and flows of the scoreboard was simply superior to her more experienced opponent.
Unbothered by the loss of her lead, Kenin stuck with her winning strategy to wrest back the flow of the match, out-manoeuvring Lisicki with dropshots and raising her first serve percentage to a solid 73% over the second set. The break was swiftly regained for 4-3, and this time Kenin held on to serve the match out at the first time of asking, coming back from 0-30 to win the final four points in a row. Next up will be another stern test in the form of either 2012 Roland Garros runner-up Sara Errani or Olympic gold medallist Monica Puig.