ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Returning to the scene of her first big breakthrough, No.8 seed Elena Rybakina continued her brilliant start to 2020 at the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, dispatching Katerina Siniakova 6-3, 6-4 in one hour and 19 minutes to move into the second round.
Rybakina had announced herself at this tournament in 2018 when, as an 18-year-old qualifier ranked World No.450, she stunned Caroline Garcia to collect her first Top 10 win. Just two years later, the Kazakh is a Top 30 player who shows no sign of slowing down after beginning 2020 with back-to-back finals in Shenzhen and Hobart - taking her second career title at the latter - and a third-round showing at the Australian Open. Today, she struck 19 winners to extend her win-loss record this year to 12-2, and to level her head-to-head against Siniakova at two wins apiece.
"It's my first tournament where I played in the big courts, so I'm happy to come back," said Rybakina afterwards. "I know Katerina - we played before, so I knew it was going to be a tough match. I'm happy with my game today overall. I played good, just lost concentration a bit."
The 20-year-old had to save two break points in her opening service game - but once she had done so, began to fire on all cylinders as she sped to a 4-0 lead. During this passage of play, Rybakina dictated proceedings with coolly dominant tennis: a series of accurate passing shots negated Siniakova's strategy of attacking the net, and heavyweight groundstrokes would work the Czech relentlessly around the court before the Bucharest and Hobart champion found the space in which to thump a winning shot.
A rash of errors out of nowhere to drop serve in the fifth game signaled the end of Rybakina's purple patch - but, in a sign of the youngster's growing match maturity, the World No.25 did not relinquish control of the scoreboard as her level fell from untouchable to merely very good. Indeed, there would still be delightful shotmaking from her racquet - a dropshot return of serve, an athletic high backhand volley - as she retained her insurance break to close the set out.
Siniakova was also beginning to find her feet now, and the second set proved to be a closer affair. The World No.59, having had her forecourt tactics countered effectively, instead began using her baseline depth and variety to discomfit a slightly more impatient Rybakina.
With the Siniakova backhand flowing nicely, the Nurnberg and Bronx semifinalist appeared poised to force a decider - and a chance to snap her five-match losing streak - when she held two break points for a 5-3 lead in the second set.
Rybakina had other ideas, though. Clutch play saw off both, and a wonderful redirected backhand winner down the line from a defensive position sealed a crucial hold. Having navigated herself out of danger, Rybakina pounced in the next game: a pair of booming forehand winners paved the way to the break.
Closing out victory would be a fuss-free affair: the Wuhan quarterfinalist's serve had been rock-solid all match, garnering her 70% of the points behind her first delivery, and a third ace sealed a second-round spot against either Anastasija Sevastova or - in an intriguing rematch two years on, with the seeded roles reversed - Garcia.
"It was a difficult match," Rybakina recalled of her 4-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(5) win over the Frenchwoman in 2018. "I think we've both improved - it was two years ago - so we'll see."