DUBAI, UAE - Elena Rybakina's torrid start to the 2020 season continued in her debut match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday, as she rallied for a 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-3 victory over Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin on Centre Court.
Fresh off a runner-up showing at the St. Petersburg Ladies' Trophy in Russia on Sunday and newly-minted in the world's Top 20 as a result, the unseeded Rybakina shook off a slow start to the match - her sixth in eight days across two countries - to seal her third career victory over a Top 10 player in two hours and one minute.
Playing her first WTA event since winning her first Grand Slam title - though she did help Team USA earn a berth in the Fed Cup Finals in a 3-2 victory over Latvia 10 days ago - Kenin won a tight opener before Rybakina rallied to win the second and third sets, extending her unbeaten run in final sets this season to 7-0.
"I've worked a lot, and it's amazing that I managed to win today. I just finished a tournament, and I only came here one day before [this match], so I'm happy," Rybakina said on-court after the match. "I'm so happy with my win today. I think today I followed my tactics, and that was the key to win."
Later, she referenced the learning experience of playing her first Premier-level final in Russia as part of what helped her stay the course to victory despite losing the first set: "We work a lot on tactics before the match. For example, the final two days ago - I didn't follow tactic at all. Today, I didn't feel the ball as good as I could. I followed the tactic I think like 90 percent. That's why I won also today."
In a high-quality match from both players off the ground in addition to on serve, Rybakina racked up 25 winners to five unforced errors, while Kenin totaled 28 winners to nine unforced. Both players won over 60 percent of the points played behind her first serve, but it was Rybakina's effectiveness behind her second - winning 65 percent of the points when she missed her first offering to Kenin's 46 percent - that helped her seal her service games in the clutch.
That effectiveness was on display as she worked her way back into the match, as she crucially saved two break points at 1-1 in the second set which would've seen the American establish firm command of the match, and later saved break point in the match's final game after seeing her first match point slip by.
"I didn't nervous at all because I knew it's going to be tough. Actually, I prepared myself like it's a good practice. I didn't expect that I will win. I mean, I tried to do my best, but I was not nervous," Rybakina said.
"Of course I believed. I didn't think that she just won Australian Open because I know that now everyone could beat everyone. I didn't think about this."
After breaking in the first game of the match and keeping her lead for much first set, with Rybakina struggling to find her timing at the start of the contest, Kenin was dug deep to ultimately win the opener.
From 5-3 behind, Rybakina found some of her best tennis to win three games in a row - earning break points for the first time as Kenin served for the set and converting on her third opportunity from 0-40 - but the World No.7 in turn raised her level in the set's late stages. Totaling 13 winners to just four unforced in the first set, nearly doubling Rybakina's total of seven winners, Kenin held from 30-30 to force a tiebreak and won the last five points to seal the set.
"I just didn't feel my game really well. Of course, she played well. I just made too many unforced errors. I just didn't take my chances. I felt really off the whole match. I tried to somehow get back in there, hang in there, but it just didn't work out today," Kenin said in defeat.
"I really thought I could have somehow turned it around. I felt like I had the match play, I had the confidence. It just didn't work out today. It's obviously really upsetting and disappointing at the moment."
A dominant showing on serve from the tour's current leader in aces helped Rybakina rally for victory: she was never broken in the second and third sets, and struck seven aces in the match to bring her 2020 total to 111 overall.
"She's having a lot of match play. She's having great results. She's playing some really good tennis," Kenin added. "I think this is the best tennis that I've seen her play. I know her, but I've never played her. She's playing big, serving, playing freely. She's playing as if she has no pressure and it's helping her.
"I just got to prepare for doubles [with Bethanie Mattek-Sands] for tomorrow. Hopefully, we can get the win. Next is Doha for me. I will try to do my best. There's a lot more tournaments coming up...hopefully, I can play better there. Hopefully, I can bring my game up there."
The Kazakh No.1 now advances to a meeting with Czech qualifier Katerina Siniakova, whom she beat last week in Russia in straight sets, after she came through a 6-4, 4-6, 6-0 meeting against compatriot Karolina Muchova earlier on Tuesday.