NEW YORK, NY, USA -- No.5 seed Aryna Sabalenka staged a comeback victory in the second round of the Western & Southern Open on Monday, as the Belarusian surged to a thrilling 6-7(1), 6-4, 7-5 win over American qualifier CiCi Bellis.
"[Bellis] played really well," Sabalenka told the media, after her win. "I tried my best, and she put me under pressure, and I was trying just to handle it."
World No.11 Sabalenka, who made the semifinals in her tournament debut in 2018 when the event took place in its usual location of Cincinnati, rebounded from the loss of an hour-long opening set where she held five set points, and closed out victory after a scintillating two hours and 20 minutes of play.
In the first meeting between the players, Sabalenka blasted 35 winners, including seven aces, and converted six of her whopping 17 break points. It was just enough to fend off a stern effort from World No.249 Bellis, who is not even a year into a comeback to WTA action after 18 months off the court due to right elbow and wrist injuries.
"I knew it was going to be tough, because we didn’t play for four, five, or six months, and I’m just proud of myself that I could handle all of these emotions going through, and finally to win this match," Sabalenka stated.
Sabalenka will now face another American qualifier in the round of 16: last year’s Citi Open champion Jessica Pegula, who claimed a straight-set win over another American, Amanda Anisimova, earlier on Monday.
"Another tough match coming tomorrow," said Sabalenka. "I’ll just try to keep fighting and keep staying as long as I can in the tournament."
The powerful Sabalenka won a lengthy game to clinch the first break of the match and a 4-2 lead, but the Belarusian handed her advantage right back when she double faulted on break point in the next game. Bellis then had a chance to go up a break herself, but a netted return by the American squandered a break point at 4-4, allowing Sabalenka to eventually hold for 5-4.
Sabalenka then created golden chances of her own, holding four set points in the 5-4 game and a fifth at 6-5, but Bellis continued to redirect the missiles from the fifth seed, and she fended off each of the quintet. After a series of missed service returns by Sabalenka led to the Bellis hold for 6-6, a decisive first-set tiebreak was lined up.
Bellis dominated the breaker, finding exquisite depth on her shots while Sabalenka’s groundstrokes went awry in the early going, and the American raced to 4-0. A missed return by the Belarusian gave Bellis a 6-1 lead and five set points, and the unseeded player only needed one after a Sabalenka forehand found the net.
Sabalenka, though, regrouped in the second set, reclaiming her control off the ground to notch a critical break of service at 3-2. The Belarusian then started to ease through the rest of the set, as exemplified by a dominant love hold for 5-3 due to a plethora of ferocious forehands.
Serving for the set at 5-4, Sabalenka exhibited variety by winning the first point of the game with a deft dropshot, then cruised to double set point after an error-forcing crosscourt forehand. A strong serve by the No.5 seed was returned into the net by Bellis, and Sabalenka had successfully put the match on level footing once more.
The final set opened with three service breaks in a row, with Sabalenka ending that string up 2-1 after a beautiful backhand winner down the line. The Belarusian stopped that streak in the next game, saving a break point in the process and powering to 3-1.
However, the close games continued, and Bellis fought her way through protracted points back to even terms at 4-4. The American took the ball early to find perfect placement as she suddenly took a lead in the decider, reaching 5-4 to put herself a game away from the upset.
But the combination of power and depth that Sabalenka routinely puts together led her to an overpowering hold for 5-5. The Belarusian took charge for good in the next game by blasting to a love service break for a 6-5 lead, crunching a forehand winner crosscourt to queue up match game.
Sabalenka needed three match points in the following game -- Bellis saving one with a sterling forehand passing winner -- but the third time was, in fact, the charm after a missed Bellis return gave Sabalenka the closely contested win.