DUBAI, UAE - Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova essayed a remarkable turnaround to oust No.4 seed and Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships defending champion Belinda Bencic in the first round 1-6, 6-1, 6-1 in one hour and 30 minutes.
Bencic had come within five points of pulling off the rare and coveted feat of a golden set after winning the first 19 points of the match - but in the end, it was Pavlyuchenkova showing no mercy as her level flipped from a disastrous start to an untouchable finish. Having lost seven of the first eight games of the match, the Russian would go from zero to 100 to rattle off 12 of the last 13 games to seal her 15th career Top 5 win, and second of the season already.
"I just kept on fighting, still trying to hit every ball, trying to be there.," said Pavlyuchenkova afterwards. "Mentally I was quite positive, just playing point by point - even though it was 5-0 [and] I thought, Oh my God, it's embarrassing, so bad. I think it helped me going into the second set because I took that mentality, that mindset of being positive and fighting, trying to do my thing. I was like, You know what, doesn't matter what the score is, just play. Slowly just started to turn around, I started to find my game."
Not only did Pavlyuchenkova reverse the momentum of the match from one extreme to the other, but she also scored just her second win in six meetings with Bencic, and first victory over the Swiss since the second round of Washington 2015. Since then, Bencic had gone on a run of three wins in a row against Pavlyuchenkova, including in the first round of Wimbledon and the Moscow final last year.
That was the form with which the brand new World No.4 opened today's contest. Moving the ball around with relentless accuracy, Bencic was dialled in from the outset, reeling off winners with aggressive moves forward and smooth placement into the corners rather than just power. The same could not be said of her opponent: Pavlyuchenkova's balls were flying long and wide from her racquet and her serve was a real thorn in her side. Four straight unforced errors conceded a first break, and three double faults gave up a second as the danger of a whitewash loomed for the Russian.
Serving at 4-0, 40-0, anticipation was beginning to build for just the second WTA golden set of the Open Era, following Yaroslava Shvedova's 6-0, 6-4 defeat of Sara Errani in the third round of Wimbledon 2012. But Bencic shanked a forehand to end her run of points - and, two games later, missed a point for the bagel as well as Pavlyuchenkova found a service winner.
The 22-year-old was still too far ahead to let the set go, serving it out with consecutive unreturned serves in the next game, and when Pavlyuchenkova began the second set by dropping serve courtesy of her fifth and sixth double faults and a pair of misfired backhands, Bencic seemed to have tightened her grip on the match again. But the World No.31 would rebound in stunning fashion, going from one extreme to the other as she turned the match around emphatically.
This time, it was Pavlyuchenkova showing no mercy to her opponent as she raced through six games on the trot for a "hidden bagel" in which she lost only 11 points. The 28-year-old's volte face started with a clean return winner, struck as though searching for some catharsis after the torment of the first set - but it would be no one-off. Pavlyuchenkova would find 14 winners to a meagre three unforced errors in the second set, many of them teeing straight off on Bencic's serve - which the Australian Open quarterfinalist would feast on for the rest of the set.
Pavlyuchenkova would also tighten up her serve and scoreboard play, raising her first serve percentage from 44% to 68% and hitting her spots with bold shotmaking to squeeze out two tight deuce games for her second and third breaks of the Bencic serve - staving off any hint of a comeback from the other end of the court. A drive volley took Pavlyuchenkova to 5-1, and she served the set out at the first time of asking with another net rush as a Bencic pass sailed long.
"As soon as I won one or two points, I was like, right, OK, this is something I need to keep doing," recalled Pavlyuchenkova. "I was trying to realize why I won it, what did I do right. I was just trying to find that rhythm. I did find it!"
The Osaka and Moscow finalist would be careful to avoid any further momentum flip as the match headed into a decider; indeed, if anything Pavlyuchenkova's level would scale even greater heights as she shut Bencic firmly out of the match. Rifling three straight winners to open the set, Pavlyuchenkova extended her winning streak of games to nine as a frustrated Bencic coughed up double faults on two break points in a row. These would increasingly plague Bencic as the contest fell away from her: the US Open semifinalist would eventually tally six, including two more as she tried - and failed - to serve to stay in the match.
Up a double break, Pavlyuchenkova's ratio of winners to unforced errors was so positive that she could even shake off the return of a sprinkling of her own double faults, one of which led to a loss of serve in the fourth game. But the former World No.13's golden touch did not desert her for long: Pavlyuchenkova hammered another series of blistering returns to regain the double break, won the best point of the match with a brilliant pinpoint lob in the next game, and broke Bencic for a seventh consecutive time as the defending champion found the net with a backhand, her 24th unforced error of the day.