SHENZHEN, China - Defending Shenzhen Open champ Aryna Sabalenka picked up where she left off to open her 2020 season, dismissing Russian qualifier Margarita Gasparyan, 6-3, 6-0.
The 21-year-old ended 2019 ranked World No.11 for a second straight year, and looks ready for a Top 10 return should she replicate the tennis that took her to a 71-minute victory on Centre Court.
"Of course, I'm happy to start my season with a two-set win!" she laughed during her on-court interview. "It was a tough match, and really tough to start.
"She's a great player and it was tough to play against her. She has strong strokes. I tried my best and I'm happy I finished with the win."
Sabalenka ended an up-and-down 2019 season on an unmistakable high, winning 10 of her final 11 matches after defending her Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open title and capturing the Hengquin Life WTA Elite Trophy.
Back to defend another title, the Belarusian began the match with a form reminiscent of what fans saw from her last fall, displaying some scintillating tennis to grab the first break.
Gasparyan, a former World No.41 who has often struggled with injury since reaching the fourth round of the 2016 Australian Open, was undeterred in breaking straight back, but the No.2 seed's pressure began to build as she responded with a love serve hold and rode that momentum to the opening set.
Sabalenka navigated through a pair of tricky games to start the second and capitalized on the Russian's mounting frustrations to take a 5-0, triple break advantage behind some unrelenting aggression.
Up three match points, she only needed one, securing the win one last forehand winner.
"I was trying to stay positive, every point to try my best," Sabalenka told reporters afterwards. "The first [match of the season] is always a little bit freaky and you need to find your rhythm back."
One thing she isn't struggling with, though, is the pressure of defending a title: in her only previous attempt, Sabalenka was triumphant as she captured a second consecutive Wuhan title in October. Her secret? "I'm not focusing on all the things around," she revealed. "Just focusing on each match, each game, each point - step by step and I'll see what happens. We cannot control the result, we can just control the game and our mind."
Standing between Sabalenka and the quarterfinals is either Kristyna Pliskova or Romanian qualifier Irina-Camelia Begu.