ABU DHABI, U.A.E. -- No.1 seed Sofia Kenin of the United States survived a scare in the third round of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open on Sunday, saving a match point en route to a 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 victory over No.13 seed Yulia Putintseva of Kazakhstan.
In the first meeting between the pair, 28th-ranked Putintseva was one point away from a straight-set victory at 6-3, 6-5, but World No.4 Kenin turned the match around from that juncture, eventually gritting out a two-and-a-half-hour win and denying Putintseva her fifth career win over a Top 5 player.
"I felt like today was mostly a mental match, because I practice with her quite a bit, and I know her game well, and she knows my game pretty well," said Kenin, during her post-match press conference.
"I didn’t play the way I wanted to play, but of course she played really well," Kenin continued. "And I guess it helps being a Grand Slam champion, knowing kind of what to do on those tough points, those tough moments, and I was able to find my rhythm by the end of the third set."
In the tense tussle, both players had exactly the same break point conversion rate, 5-for-12. Kenin out-winnered Putintseva by 35 to 25, and the American won two-thirds of her first-service points to eke out the narrow victory.
"I lose to her like all the time there!" Kenin laughed, discussing her practices with Putintseva. "So I kind of wanted to get my revenge there, try to do well here rather than in practice."
Kenin, the 2020 WTA Player of the Year, has now moved further at a tournament in the Middle East than she ever has before. The American had never advanced beyond the round of 16 in her three previous appearances at tournaments in the region.
Top-seeded Kenin will now face No.9 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece in the quarterfinals, after Sakkari defeated No.5 seed Garbiñe Muguruza of Spain earlier on Sunday. Kenin has won both of her previous clashes with Sakkari, although they have not faced off since the 2018 US Open.
"Maria’s obviously playing really well, and if she’s on, it’s going to be tough," said Kenin. "I know it’s going to be ballstriking, it’s just going to be flat-flat-flat, so I just have to somehow figure out how to handle it."
Kenin won her first seven service points of the match while Putintseva had to fend off two early break points, but the Kazakh was still able to maintain a 3-2 lead at the start of the encounter. That path turned out to be crucial, as Kenin suddenly let a 40-15 lead in that game slip away with three consecutive double faults, giving Putintseva a break point.
The crafty Kazakh converted that chance by drawing a netted error with a divine slice, earning a 4-2 lead. Putintseva’s lone break point in the set would prove to be the pivotal break, as Putintseva used deep, heavy groundstrokes to hold serve at 5-3 and claim the opening frame.
Kenin regrouped and took the early lead in the second set, coming out on top after a long rally to break for 3-1, converting her third break point of that protracted game. The American’s backhand was finding its range more successfully as she extended her lead to 5-2.
Putintseva, however, came roaring back, thundering returns deep at the feet of Kenin to grasp the break back for 5-4. After a routine hold for 5-5, Putintseva attacked the Kenin serve again, clinching a second straight break and a chance to serve out the match at 6-5.
An ace at 30-30 in that game gave Putintseva a match point, but Kenin used her beautiful crosscourt backhand to force an error from the Kazakh and eliminate that opportunity. Kenin then powered through groundstrokes to earn two break points, and converted the second of those by forcing an error from Putintseva with another sturdy backhand.
A second-set tiebreak started with Putintseva up 3-1 after a forehand winner down the line, but Kenin steered it back in her favor, winning four straight points to lead 5-3. The American forced another error from Putintseva to garner two set points at 6-4, and Kenin closed out the 64-minute set by breaking open a grueling rally with a down-the-line backhand winner.
The backhand continued to serve Kenin well in the decider, as the American found the sideline with a winner from that wing to break for 3-2, in a game where Putintseva initially led 40-0. Kenin kept her run rolling by excelling from both sides, notching consecutive forehand winners to earn a double-break for 5-2.
Putintseva grabbed one break back to pull to 5-3, but Kenin still zipped to double match point at 5-4. However, miscues by the American dragged her back to deuce, and Putintseva had one last chance to get back on serve, as she reached break point after another forehand error by Kenin.
The top seed, though, was not to be denied, saving the break point, then moving to match point number three with an error-forcing forehand. The third time was, in fact, the charm, as Putintseva sent a forehand wide, and Kenin had grabbed a hard-fought win from the very brink of defeat one set earlier.