ABU DHABI, U.A.E. -- No.1 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States had to grit her way through a tough first set before quelling the challenge of Chinese qualifier Yang Zhaoxuan, 7-6(4), 6-2, and moving into the second round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open.

World No.4 Kenin, the 2020 WTA Player of the Year, needed over an hour to finally polish off the opening frame against Yang, a former Top 20 doubles player who is currently ranked World No.789 in singles and is contesting her first singles event since October of 2019. Kenin eventually took the straight-set victory after a total of one hour and 52 minutes of play.

"It was the first match, obviously a bit of nerves, I had to find my groove," Kenin said, during her post-match press conference. "Conditions weren't easy, it was quite windy. The first set was tough for me. I couldn't find the ball, I guess. But the second set I started off strong."

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Reigning Australian Open champion Kenin had actually played Yang in singles once before, defeating the Chinese player in under an hour in Wuhan qualifying in 2018 when the American was ranked outside the Top 50. Yang gave Kenin a much sterner test this time around, but the Grand Slam champion prevailed with 45 winners, almost double the total from Yang. 

"I feel like it's because of the lack of matches for me, that's why I kind of went down a bit," said Kenin. "Of course, [Yang] played good. I'm overall happy with how I played, but overall I have to improve my game if I want to do well here."

"Courts are obviously faster," Kenin continued. "I feel like if the ball is deep it kind of slides. I feel like I got better adjusting to that because my first hit, every deep ball I would hit defensively because it was sliding. I've gotten used to that, so it's a bit better."

Despite the loss, it was likely a heartening singles experience for 25-year-old Yang, who had won only two WTA main-draw singles matches in her career and had never before played a Top 30 opponent in the singles discipline.

The Chinese player, who reached the 2018 Roland Garros doubles semifinals, held 13 break points in the match, one more than Kenin, but could only convert one of those chances. Kenin, on the other hand, converted three of her 12 break points, taking the Chinese player's service thrice in the second set.

There were signs from the outset of the affair that the first set would be closely contested, as Yang used expert ballstriking and volleying to obtain three break points in the very first game. Kenin executed a series of backhand winners to pull her way out of danger and eke out a hold, but the Chinese player proved from the start that she would try to match Kenin game for game.

In fact, that would be the case throughout the opening frame. While Kenin found a number of service winners to propel her through her next few service games without many issues, Yang refused to yield when she stepped to the line, and stayed level with the top seed through 4-4, saving two break points in the process.

It was then Kenin’s turn to grit through two challenging service games, but her backhand and serve still kept her in good stead as she moved to a 6-5 lead. A powerful return gave Kenin a first set point in that game, but Yang withstood that chance, and after two deuces, Yang powered her way out of trouble to hold serve and queue up a decisive tiebreak.

Yang started the breaker with a backhand winner, but Kenin would end up claiming five of the next six points, knocking off a return winner down the line for a commanding 5-2 lead. The American earned two more set points at 6-3, and closed out the 64-minute set on her third time of asking with a deft forehand passing lob.

With the protracted first set in her pocket, Kenin seemed to quickly have the second set in her grasp as well, earning her first break of the day in the opening game. However, Yang continued to be aggressive on her returns and groundstrokes, and held a whopping six break points in the next game before Kenin once again wriggled out of danger and held for 2-0 with one of her 11 aces.

Yang did finally earn a service break as Kenin dropped serve with a double fault at 3-0, but the American regrouped not long after, reclaiming her double-break advantage with a divine dropshot winner to move ahead 5-2. In the next game, a forehand winner down the line put Kenin on the precipice of victory at double match point.

Yang, though, continued to fire her shots with abandon, erasing those two match points, as well as an additional three more in that game. With five match points already saved, Yang slammed a backhand crosscourt winner to suddenly reach break point, but Kenin, as was her custom on the day, staved off that chance. At last, Kenin converted her sixth match point with a winner off the netcord to book her spot in the second round.

Kenin will now face Belgium's Kirsten Flipkens in the second round. Former Top 15 player Flipkens came out the victor in a tough three-set opener against Germany's Laura Siegemund on Wednesday.

One-On-One With Chris Evert