Day 2 of main draw play at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships kicked off with a raft of seeded victories, with No.14 seed Elena Rybakina, No.11 seed Madison Keys and No.12 seed Marketa Vondrousova all progressing in straight sets.
Rybakina had reached her first Premier/500 level final here last year, falling to Simona Halep in 2020's Match of the Year, and hit the ground running with a 6-0, 6-4 defeat of Zheng Saisai in one hour and 13 minutes. The Kazakh struck 18 winners, including five aces, and dropped just seven points in her first five service games as she built a 6-0, 3-1 lead.
At that point, Zheng threw a spanner in the works with a sudden switch-up. The Chinese World No.48 moved her return stance halfway up the court and began to swarm the net directly off the Rybakina serve.
This allowed Zheng to show off her touch at net, where she won seven out of 10 points, and inject an entertaining twist into the contest. But despite garnering Zheng the break back, it was only a briefly effective tactic. Its risk was in leaving Zheng vulnerable to the serve out wide, something Rybakina was quick to notice.
Moving to a 5-4 lead, Rybakina was sharp in closing out the match, stepping into her own returns with renewed ferocity to break Zheng in the final game. Next up is a tantalizing matchup against another queen of variety, Ons Jabeur.
"I lost a bit of concentration in the second set," said Rybakina afterwards. "Also Saisai, she played well - she decided to risk stepping in on the returns. So overall I think it was not a bad match."
Elsewhere, former Grand Slam finalists Keys and Vondrousova both eased past qualifiers. Vondrousova, the 2019 Roland Garros runner-up, needed one hour and 33 minutes to hold off Ana Bogdan 6-4, 6-4. The Czech found her initial breaks in each set pegged back by the battling Bogdan, but was sharp enough to hold on to the overall lead both times. Vondrousova will next face 16-year-old wildcard Coco Gauff.
2017 US Open runner-up Keys saw off Liang En-Shuo, the 2018 Australian Open girls' champion competing in her third WTA main draw, 6-1, 6-1 in 64 minutes. Meanwhile, wildcard Anastasia Potapova posted a quality 6-3, 6-2 win over the tricky Laura Siegemund.
An up-and-down first-round clash between two former Top 5 players saw Caroline Garcia come from 1-4 down in the final set to upset Angelique Kerber 3-6, 6-2, 6-4. The result is the Frenchwoman's third victory over Kerber in nine matches. All six of Kerber's wins have come in straight sets, whereas Garcia has now claimed both of their three-set tilts (along with one win via retirement).
The match was littered with mistakes, with Kerber committing 38 unforced errors to just nine winners, as well as 10 double faults. Garcia matched the German in this regard in the first set, tallying five winners to 16 unforced errors, but cleaned up her game enough to snatch victory.
The World No.47, who suffered a disappointing loss last week in her hometown tournament to eventual finalist Viktorija Golubic in the second round, was able to play her steadiest tennis when behind. With Kerber unable to raise her own level, the closing stages of the match were on Garcia's racquet. The 27-year-old finished in fine fashion, flashing three forehand winners as she served out the win. Next up for Garcia will be lucky loser Martina Trevisan, who replaced Victoria Azarenka in the draw after the No.7 seed withdrew due to a back injury.
Meanwhile, Misaki Doi pulled off a rare feat with her 6-2, 4-6, 6-3 defeat of Polona Hercog. The Japanese World No.77 has entered three consecutive tournaments - Adelaide, Doha and now Dubai - as a lucky loser. Each time, she has made the most of her opportunity to win a match in the main draw.