NEW YORK, NY, USA - In the first WTA match back on US hard courts, Ekaterina Alexandrova reprised the result of the year's first final to outserve No.9 seed Elena Rybakina 7-5, 7-6(6), saving two set points in the second set, and move into the second round of the Western & Southern Open in one hour and 37 minutes.
The question of whether the most in-form players of 2020 prior to the WTA Tour's coronavirus shutdown will be able to sustain their form on resumption is one of the most intriguing of the upcoming New York bubble swing - Prague champion Simona Halep and Lexington champion Jennifer Brady have already answered it in the affirmative - and today's popcorn clash pitted two of them against each other. Alexandrova held a 12-5 win-loss record over the first two months of the season, including a 6-2, 6-4 defeat of Rybakina to lift her maiden trophy in Shenzhen in January - while 21-year-old Rybakina had seized the tennis world's attention with a phenomenal 21-4 record, reaching four finals (winning one) out of six tournaments played.
The Shenzhen result, Alexandrova said afterwards, had not been on her mind. "Maybe in some way it helped, but it was so long ago... I think today's match was completely different," she asserted. And while an upset of a Top 20 player is always a boost, the hiatus means that Alexandrova is happy for any victories now: "It feels great, it gives me a lot of confidence to beat players like her - but every match right now gives you confidence, because it was such a long pause. Every match is important now."
Today, it was the Russian - playing her third event of the resumption after reaching the second round of Palermo and falling in the first round of Prague - who was significantly sharper in a contest that hinged on the quality of both players' serves. Alexandrova edged her opponent in terms of both first serve percentage (59% to 53%) and first serve points won (86% to 80%) - though it was the first-set disparity in those numbers that would give the 25-year-old the momentum, after landing 62% of her first deliveries and winning 92% of those points in that passage of play compared to Rybakina getting a mere 47% of her first serves in.
The serve was particularly dominant in the initial stages of the match: of the 13 points that comprised the first three games, nine were unreturned deliveries. It was Alexandrova who found her returning groove first, aided by Rybakina's lower first serve percentage, rifling a handful of hard, deep returns to break for a 4-2 lead.
Serving for the set, the World No.27 - who had not lost a point behind her first serve to this point - began to wobble, coughing up three double faults in a game where her form oscillated wildly. Though Alexandrova saved two break-back points with aces, Rybakina sensed vulnerability, staving off two set points - one with a bold drive volley - before breaking back with a booming forehand winner down the line, her finest shot thus far.
Despite levelling the score at 5-5, the Kazakh was unable to fully wrest the momentum, though: instead, Alexandrova gathered herself, holding for 6-5 with a neat backhand winner and, after Rybakina's third double fault opened a 0-30 door in the 12th game, breaking for the set with another ferocious forehand return.
The second set featured much the same serve-based dynamic as the first, with fewer plot twists. At its outset, Rybakina was in brief danger of falling away as another double fault brought up a break point to go down 0-2 - but Alexandrova was unable to take advantage. A sequence of authoritative holds followed thereafter, with the quality of play increasing all the time: in the seventh game, Alexandrova followed a brilliant change of direction with her backhand with an excellent counterdrop; serving to stay in the match for the first time, Rybakina finished off an all-court scramble with a drive volley before sealing the hold with a remarkable forehand angle.
Up 6-5, Alexandrova blitzed a forehand return winner to come within two points of victory - only for her subsequent return to be bounced into the tramlines by the net cord. Rybakina appeared to have taken full advantage of this, leaping out to a 5-2 lead in the ensuing tiebreak and ultimately holding two set points - but the World No.17's sixth double fault of the day squandered the first on her own serve.
Alexandrova needed to swing her racquet just three more times to make Rybakina pay for that lapse: a service winner saved the second set point, her eighth ace of the day set up match point, and a backhand return winner - her 24th of the contest - sealed an excellent win. Next up for Alexandrova is another intriguing clash against either 19-year-old Iga Swiatek or qualifier Christina McHale.