DUBAI, UAE - Shortly before Tuesday became Wednesday in Dubai, No.7 seed Aryna Sabalenka sealed her spot in the second round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships with a 6-2, 4-6, 6-1 victory over Greece's Maria Sakkari.
Sabalenka avoided the upset bug that bit many of her peers on the second day of main draw play at the Premier event - which saw No.3 seed Elina Svitolina, No.4 seed and defending champion Belinda Bencic and No.5 seed and Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin all suffer first-round exits - by virtue of a two-hour and two-minute victory on Centre Court that concluded at 11:31 p.m. local time.
After leading 6-2, 3-1, Sabalenka was pulled into a decider by tenacious play from the in-form Greek No.1, who reached the semifinals at the St. Petersburg Ladies' Trophy last week. After losing five of the next six games, however, Sabalenka steadied herself in the decider and won the first five games en route to winning with a flourish.
"I'm happy to win this match. I knew it was going to be a great fight and that it was going to be tough," Sabalenka said on-court after the match, "but somehow I was able to handle the pressure from her and I'm happy with the result."
The Belarusian sprinted out of the gates in the opening set, winning the first three games with the loss of just one point, and opening up a 4-1 lead after just over 20 minutes played. From there, however, Greece's No.1 worked her way into the match, and though the early deficit proved too much to overcome in the opener, a trio of marathon games at the end of the set served notice that Sakkari would be there to compete for the duration.
Despite losing serve in a lengthy sixth game, where she saved five break points but could not fend off a sixth to trail 5-1, Sakkari saved a trio of set points in Sabalenka's ensuing service game to seal her first break for the match. The Belarusian No.1 ultimately wrapped up the opener in just under three-quarters of an hour, but not before she needed five set points, and turned aside three chances for Sakkari to close the gap to 5-3.
Sabalenka saved a pair of break points in the first game of the second set, and scored her fourth break of Sakkari's serve in the fourth game to take what appeared to be full command of the match. However, the pair split two meetings a year ago - including a three-set win for Sakkari at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati from a set down - and the Greek's tenacity earned her a break back straight away.
The two traded holds with ease from then on, until Sakkari stepped up to the plate and earned the decisive break in the ninth game, and emphatically sent the match to a decider with the match firmly into its second hour.
"I think I just made few not really smart mistakes. That turned it into the third set. I was just trying to stay calm and control the situation. I think I did it well," Sabalenka said. "I just cooled down a little bit, started to play through the points. Not try to hit it from the first ball. It helped me come back in the match. Still it was like 6-1, but a tough set.
"She's a great player. It's always big fight against her. It's always tough. I knew it and I was ready for this."
With the victory, Sabalenka advances to face an opponent she often takes the court with - but when she's on the same side of the net - in doubles partner Elise Mertens. The Belgian beat Wang Qiang on Monday in emphatic fashion, 6-3, 6-0.
The pair have met four previous times, splitting the meetings. Their last meeting, at the WTA Elite Trophy last fall in round robin play, went Sabalenka's way in three dramatic sets, 6-4, 3-6, 7-5.
"We played so many times before," Sabalenka said. "It's always not easy. She's a great player. I know it. I know she's a big fighter. I'm just going to out there and enjoy the fight. I don't want to focus on that she's my doubles partner, like we are friends and something. It's going to be a big fight."