DUBAI, UAE - Upsets are becoming routine for Jennifer Brady, who scored her second career Top 10 win with a 6-2, 6-1 defeat of No.3 seed Elina Svitolina in exactly one hour in the first round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.
This tournament was something of a milestone for the American last year, who posted a third career Top 20 win over Caroline Garcia before taking a set from a Top 10 player for the first time in her third-round defeat to Petra Kvitova. Brady has continued to rise ever since, taking her dark horse status to new levels in Brisbane to start 2020 by scoring a maiden Top 10 win over World No.1 Ashleigh Barty.
As in those events, she came into Dubai as a qualifier - but even against Svitolina, who had lifted the Dubai trophy in 2017 and 2018 and had not lost before the semifinals since her 2015 debut here, Brady betrayed no sense that she was an underdog today. Instead, the 24-year-old dominated Svitolina - to whom she had lost 6-2, 6-4 in their only previous meeting, in the first round of Montréal 2016 - with brutal hitting, striking 17 winners to 13 unforced errors over the course of the match.
The secret to Brady's success against higher-ranked opponents has been "going out there and believing that I could win", she said afterwards. It's also been about not demanding too high a level of herself: "Obviously respecting my opponent, but not to the point where I put the opponent on a pedestal, have to think that I have to play my best tennis in order to win. I was just focused on my game plan, myself."
A flurry of backhand errors to begin the match were not a good omen for Brady, who was aiming for the lines and missing by inches. But in a sign of the Nottingham semifinalist's confidence, she was not put off her strategy - and took less than a game to play the errant wing in. Having fended off two break points, Brady fired three consecutive backhand bangers - two winners, and one as good as - to hold. Thereafter, she never looked back.
Dictating play with big serving, a heavy forehand that routinely pushed Svitolina behind the baseline and flashes of redirection on the backhand, Brady would not face another break point over the rest of the set. The Ukrainian would manage to post a couple of holds, but from 1-2 down Brady reeled off nine games in a row, breaking Svitolina in the sixth game with another backhand down the line and then again for the set as the World No.6 sent a backhand into the net.
"Maybe she just didn't get the best start from the beginning, and I was able to just keep my foot on the gas [and] take over from there," recalled Brady. "I think I served pretty well throughout the whole match. Started off strong on the serve, was able to apply pressure on the return games. Yeah, I think just from the beginning maybe she felt my presence."
Svitolina, whose 2019 was characterized by deep runs at the biggest events - her first two Grand Slam semifinals at Wimbledon and US Open, and a runner-up showing at the WTA Finals - has not begun 2020 in the same form: the 25-year-old opened her season by winning just two games from Danielle Collins in the first round of Brisbane, and last week was upset by Nao Hibino in the Hua Hin quarterfinals. The second set saw her fall further off the pace as her intensity dropped away: leaking cheap errors from her backhand in particular, Svitolina's first serve percentage would plummet from 57% to 38%.
"It was not a bad start, but then everything just went downhill," mused Svitolina afterwards. "I wish I could regroup better. In the end, I didn't feel so good the ball. Just everything was all over the place today." On her disappointing start to 2020, she vowed to keep looking for the answers: "I'm trying still to find what's going on, what I have to add to improve," she said. "It's very tough to pick one thing. I think just everything has to come together. I have to be stronger physically. I have to be in a better shape. Just everything has to get better. We're working hard, but something is maybe not right now. We will continue working and trying to find that particular moment where I will feel better and play better."
Two double faults in the second game handed an immediate break over to Brady; another, along with another pair of poor backhand mistakes, saw the World No.52 take a 4-0 lead with the minimum of fuss. This lead would prove to be enough, despite Brady squandering a 40-0 lead on her own serve to move up 5-0.
Improved depth from Svitolina drew a handful of errors from the qualifier to claw one of the breaks back - but the former World No.3 was still unable to stem her flow of double faults or errant backhands, which would help her unforced error tally to 16, and conceded her serve again immediately. This time, Brady made no mistake serving for the win, coming back from 0-30 with some more forehand blows and finishing in style with her fifth ace of the day.