ZHUHAI, China - No.4 seed Aryna Sabalenka opened her 2019 Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai campaign with an efficient 6-3, 6-4 win over No.9 seed Maria Sakkari in one hour and 20 minutes to kick off round-robin action in the Rose Group.
The Belarusian is making her second appearance in Zhuhai, having fallen in the round robin stages in 2018, and struck six aces to open her quest to improve on that this year while breaking her opponent once in each set. Sabalenka also gained some revenge over Sakkari, who was playing only her second match following a two-month post-US Open hiatus to recover from a wrist injury, having lost to the Greek 6-7(4), 6-4, 6-4 in the third round of Cincinnati in August.
Afterwards, Sabalenka said that she had learned some valuable lessons from that defeat. "I was crazy on the court, I was getting mad because of everything," she recalled. "So this time I was trying to stay calm until the end and just fight for every point, because she's a big fighter and she will go for it, it doesn't matter what - and so I was trying to stay focused on each point. And of course I think my game was more consistent today."
A serve-dominated affair in which extended rallies were few and far between saw both players dominating behind their first serves as the aces and service winners flowed. During the first set, Sabalenka would win 88% of her first serve points with Sakkari only just behind on 79%, and the first seven games passed by in a series of rapid-fire holds.
Not that there weren't opportunities - Sabalenka had to stave off five break points in the third game, and survived three double faults in the seventh, while Sakkari was able to save two break points in the sixth. But each would come up with clutch serves to get out of trouble - until the eighth game saw Sabalenka step up to take advantage of the lesser Sakkari second serve, which garnered the 24-year-old only 27% of the points behind it across the match compared to Sabalenka's 61%. Racing to the net with alacrity, the Wuhan champion broke with a fine, deep forehand volley, and swiftly served out the set - finishing with a bold serve-and-volley that saw her final shot catch the net cord to bounce out of Sakkari's reach.
The court speed, it turned out, had even surprised Sabalenka. "I just know in the practice I didn't feel that the courts are really fast," she explained. "But today, especially on the baseline, it was really, really fast... I think it's helped my game a lot. I don't know that the courts are fast, but it feels really comfortable."
The second set would almost exactly replicate the pattern of the first, opening with eight consecutive holds. Only Sabalenka would miss chances during this passage of play, squandering a break point in each of the third and fifth games - but it was Sakkari who was growing increasingly frustrated with her inability to make an impact on her rival's service games.
At 4-4, Sabalenka would once again rise to the occasion of the set's business end. In terms of both tactics and execution, the 21-year-old's forays to the forecourt proved key: rushing the net off deep returns, she would force Sakkari into error to concede the sole break of the set - and despite two more double faults as she attempted to serve out the win taking her tally to eight, Sabalenka's only negative for the day, the World No.14 successfully continued the strategy to seal victory.