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Serena, Venus breeze into Aussie Open second round | Osaka, Swiatek cruise in Aussie Open first round
The first night session of the 2021 Australian Open kicked off with two former finalists successfully navigating their way into the second round. But even though No.2 seed Simona Halep and No.9 seed Petra Kvitova were both able to move through in straight sets, the manner of their victories was contrasting.
Halep, the 2018 runner-up to Caroline Wozniacki, rattled off 15 of the first 19 points to beat wildcard Lizette Cabrera 6-2, 6-1, while Kvitova's dominance over qualifier Greet Minnen 6-3, 6-4 wasn't far off.
Initially, the pair seemed to be in a race to finish first against opponents ranked outside the Top 100. Both Halep and Kvitova got off to 5-1 leads in under 25 minutes. Thereafter, the two seeds took different routes to the finishing line. Halep, relentlessly moving the ball from line to line and maintaining impeccable depth, had proved near-impossible for a nervy Cabrera to hit through and pressed home her advantage in the second set with superb clutch tennis and her best serves when she needed them, saving the first four break points she faced in the match en route to a 5-0 lead.
Cabrera, the 23-year-old Australian World No.140 who has three WTA quarterfinal showings under her belt to date - at Guangzhou and Hong Kong in 2017 and Hobart last year - was facing a Top 10 opponent for the first time, and though her home crowd responded enthusiastically as she avoided a second-set bagel by converting a break point for the first time, it was too little, too late.
A game later, Halep - who showed no sign of the back injury that had visibly hampered her in last week's Gippsland Trophy quarterfinal loss to Ekaterina Alexandrova - had completed a 59-minute dismissal to set up a second-round date with another home player, World No.72 Ajla Tomljanovic.
Kvitova's passage, on the other hand, wasn't quite so smooth. From 5-1 up in the first set, the Czech lost five of the next six games as World No.110 Minnen began to get her eye in on return. Kvitova, runner-up in Melbourne in 2019 to Naomi Osaka, was able to close out the opener at the second time of asking, but had to claw her way slowly back from a large deficit in the second. The 30-year-old faced two points to fall behind by a 0-4 double break and three more to go down 3-5, but would escape all of them as she inched through the last five games, closing out victory in one hour and 21 minutes. Next up for the former World No.2 will be Sorana Cirstea, who dismissed Patricia Maria Tig 6-2, 6-1 in an all-Romanian derby.
A relieved Kvitova said afterwards: "I'm really glad after that kind of score - [it looked like] it was easy the first set but suddenly something happen, and I'm really glad that I was able to turn it around for my side. That's been really important for me... I think in those break points it was important I didn't have a mistake and was just going for it."
Sabalenka soars past Kuzmova, Rybakina resists Zvonareva
Last week, the longest winning streak of Aryna Sabalenka's career came to an end as, after 15 straight victories and three consecutive tournament trophies, the Belarusian crashed out in her Gippsland Trophy opener to eventual finalist Kaia Kanepi. Today, the No.7 seed resumed winning ways in style, routing Viktoria Kuzmova 6-0, 6-4 in just one hour and three minutes.
The Ostrava, Linz and Abu Dhabi champion had been kept waiting to get on Court 3 after a series of longueurs preceding her, and raced out of the blocks as if keen to waste no more time. Sabalenka reeled off the first nine games against World No.100 Kuzmova, and though the Slovak avoided the whitewash and clung on doggedly in the second set, it wasn't enough to distract the seeded player from her mission. With a ratio of 21 winners to 14 unforced errors, Sabalenka's aim to translate her Tour-level form into a first Grand Slam quarterfinal - or beyond - remains on track.
Meanwhile, an intriguing inter-generational battle between two Moscow-born competitors was taken by No.17 seed Elena Rybakina 4-6, 6-4, 6-4 in two hours and four minutes over 2009 and 2011 semifinalist Vera Zvonareva.
Like Sabalenka, the 21-year-old Kazakh - who reached a Tour-leading five WTA finals in 2020 - is seeking to bring that form to the major stage, where she is yet to reach the second week of a Grand Slam. Today's result was an impressive display of fortitude: Rybakina, who had to undergo a fortnight of hard quarantine on arriving in Australia, needed to withstand fightbacks from the 36-year-old Zvonareva in both the second and third sets. Despite finding her early break leads pegged back to a tense 4-4 situation in each, the laconic Rybakina proved cool-headed in the biggest moments to squeeze past her experienced opponent.
Next, Rybakina will have the chance to avenge her most recent Grand Slam defeat against France's Fiona Ferro, who won their second-round tilt at Roland Garros in October 6-3, 4-6, 6-2 and who overcame Katerina Siniakova 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-4 today.
Tiebreak triumphs for Cornet, Gracheva in marathons
Elsewhere, the two longest matches of Day One were both won in tight match tiebreaks. Leading the way was the indomitable battler Alizé Cornet, who denied Russian qualifier Valeria Savinykh her first Grand Slam main draw win since 2013 by overturning a 0-4 final-set deficit to snatch a 6-2, 4-6, 7-6 victory in two hours and 46 minutes.
One minute behind was Australian Open debutante Varvara Gracheva, who seemed to have let her chance slip after failing to convert two match points leading Anna Blinkova 5-4 in the third set and subsequently dropping her own serve. But Blinkova was unable to serve out the win, and the 20-year-old Gracheva took a hard-hitting decisive tiebreak and a 6-1, 3-6, 7-6 victory on her third match point.