The third round of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships began with an exodus of seeds.
Wildcard Anastasia Potapova's breakthrough week continued with a 6-1, 2-6, 7-5 upset of Belinda Bencic, who had been the only former Dubai champion remaining in the draw - an unwelcome gift on the No.6 seed's 24th birthday. Bencic was joined on the sidelines by two former finalists, with the surging Jessica Pegula taking out No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova 6-0, 6-2 for the second time in as many weeks, and Barbora Krejcikova ousting Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-3, 6-2.
Jessie just keeps rolling 🛼🛼@JLPegula takes down No.2 seed Pliskova for the second time in the space of a week, 6-0, 6-2, to move into her first WTA 1000 quarterfinal!#DDFTennis pic.twitter.com/QnTq5YWreL— wta (@WTA) March 10, 2021
Potapova underwent ankle surgery last August and only returned to action in January. But the former junior World No.1's level was impressive during the Australian swing, where she played both Simona Halep and Serena Williams closely, and this week she has begun translating her form into results.
The 19-year-old Potapova's defeats of Bencic and, one round earlier, No.11 seed Madison Keys, were her third and fourth Top 20 wins, and first since her upset of Angelique Kerber at Roland Garros 2019. They have put the Russian into her first WTA 1000 quarterfinal; previously, the biggest tournament at which she had made the last eight was St Petersburg 2020, at 500/Premier level.
A flawless first set saw Potapova dominate Adelaide runner-up Bencic, racking up a plethora of winners - particularly off her backhand wing. But the Swiss player flipped the script in the second, holding her ground on the baseline to dictate play off the ground and raising her serving level.
Potapova's own serve, which had been a significant weapon in the opening set, began to dip in quality. The World No.88 would total 12 double faults, five of which came in a 12-deuce dénouement to the second set - a marathon tussle that Bencic eventually laid to rest on her seventh set point.
Seven games of the decider would feature a double fault, with Bencic tallying seven herself, but both players overcame the ongoing unreliability of their deliveries to open the third set with a streak of 10 straight holds. It was Potapova who raised her intensity at crunch time to snap it. Renewed focus off the ground saw her find her first-set form on her backhand: three paved the way to the crucial break for 6-5, and another winner blazed down the line sealed her second match point.
Last week, Australian Open quarterfinalist Pegula had routed Pliskova 6-3, 6-1 to reach her first WTA 500 semifinal in Doha. That day, Pliskova had been coming off a late-night three-setter against Ons Jabeur less than 24 hours previously - but as if to emphasise the result was no fluke, Pegula simply dealt out an even more one-sided trouncing in a 50-minute sequel.
The American needed only 20 minutes to race through an opening-set bagel during which Pliskova won just 10 points. The briefest lapse in concentration allowed the former World No.1 to get on the board at the start of the second, with Pegula committing six of her 11 unforced errors in those two games. It didn't last long: as soon as Pegula recovered her focus, she rattled off another six straight games for a 'hidden bagel' and the match.
Throughout, Pegula was not only supreme on serve but adept at consistently placing the ball in awkward positions for her opponent. In particular, the World No.36 repeatedly fired her strokes deep on the baseline and straight at Pliskova's feet, invariably eliciting a mistake. Pliskova, the 2015 Dubai runner-up, finished with 26 unforced errors to only seven winners.
The result marks just the third time Pliskova has managed to win two games or fewer in a completed WTA main draw match, following her 6-1, 6-0 loss to Roberta Vinci in the 2013 Katowice quarterfinals and her 6-1, 6-1 defeat at the hands of Margarita Gasparyan in the first round of Doha 2016. Pegula also becomes the seventh player to have bagelled Pliskova in a WTA main draw encounter - and has conceded only eight games in her three matches this week so far.
Pegula and Potapova were joined by another first-time WTA 1000 quarterfinalist in Krejcikova, the former doubles World No.1 whose singles surge since the tour resumption has brought her to World No.63 in the rankings. However, two seeds to survive were No.3 Aryna Sabalenka, who defeated No.15 Anett Kontaveit 6-3, 6-2, and No.10 Elise Mertens, who continued to turn her rivalry against Caroline Garcia around with a 6-4, 6-2 win.
Sabalenka was in fine fettle in overpowering Kontaveit in just 61 minutes. A 71% first serve percentage enabled the Belarusian, who faced just one break point, to dominate. That was in the the second game of the second set, and after navigating that hurdle Sabalenka's game went into overdrive. A sequence of four blistering backhand winners in five points to seal the double break was a particularly impressive patch of play.
Mertens and Pegula will clash next, in a rematch of last year's Western & Southern Open quarterfinal. The Belgian had lost all three of her meetings against Garcia prior to this year, but following her first win over Garcia at the Gippsland Trophy has now posted two victories in a row.