The inaugural Chicago Fall Tennis Classic kicked off with solid wins for Dayana Yastremska and No.12 seed Veronika Kudermetova against tricky opponents, and a stunning upset from WTA debutante Mai Hontama.
Yastremska came from a break down in the first set to capture an intriguing first-time encounter against Alizé Cornet 7-5, 6-1 in one hour and 36 minutes. Meanwhile, Kudermetova triumphed in an all-Russian derby against qualifier Anna Kalinskaya 7-6(8), 4-6, 6-2 in two hours and 27 minutes, and Hontama needed only one hour and 14 minutes to collect a career-best victory against Caroline Garcia 6-3, 6-0.
The WTA 500 event is the third and final instalment of the Chicago Tennis Festival, a triptych of tournaments that began with 125 and 250 events in August. Cornet was the runner-up to Elina Svitolina at the latter, but could not replicate the same form against Yastremska.
The Ukrainian came into Chicago short on wins. Following her return to the Tour in July, Yastremska had won just three out of her first 10 matches, and had retired from her first-round match in Portoroz two weeks ago due to a lower back injury. She made a poor start against Cornet, falling behind 1-3 in a flurry of errors.
However, World No.72 Yastremska remained composed to gradually rein her power in. A backhand winner sealed the break back, and the 21-year-old was rather handed another break in the last game of the first set after Cornet committed a double fault and netted a dropshot on the final two points.
Yastremska stepped up the intensity in the second set, repeatedly shrugging off errors at the start of games to capture them with winners. Another booming backhand sealed victory, and a second-round clash with No.7 seed Elise Mertens.
Kudermetova was also in real need of a win, having tailed off after a phenomenal first half of 2021. The 24-year-old had compiled a 24-11 record through Roland Garros, including her maiden title in Charleston, but had gone 4-9 coming into Chicago since then.
A match against World No.151 Kalinskaya was a real test. Despite the gap in their rankings, the pair are familiar foes from their ITF days, having split four meetings in 2016-17. Kudermetova needed to summon all her fortitude to overturn a 2-5 double-break deficit in the first set, saving three set points along the way before converting her own third in an edgy tiebreak.
Similarly, Kudermetova responded to getting edged out of the second set in the home stretch with a strong decider, eventually winning a brilliant all-court exchange on her first match point.
This week has already marked several milestones for Mai Hontama. On Sunday, the Japanese 22-year-old qualified for her first WTA main draw with a win over Harriet Dart; and in today's new rankings, she made her Top 200 debut at No.200. To celebrate, Hontama immediately scored her first Top 100 win with a brilliant performance against Garcia.
Hontama has been building up her form on the ITF World Tennis Tour this year. Having ended 2020 ranked World No.330, she has won two ITF W25 titles in Salinas and Porto, and her win over Garcia extends her season win-loss record to 38-12.
Taking the ball early and able to blitz down-the-line winners from defensive positions, Hontama rarely let the former World No.4 settle. As the match went on, Garcia's forehand became increasingly errant, and the Frenchwoman went out in somewhat unfortunate fashion: two consecutive double faults, with the last of those serves heading over the baseline on the wrong side of the court.
Pegula, Li, Rogers score home wins
A trio of Americans scored victories on home soil on Day 1. No.9 seed Jessica Pegula eased past qualifier Magdalena Frech 6-3, 6-0 in just 66 minutes, while Ann Li needed only 68 minutes to dismiss Donna Vekic 6-3, 6-1. Shelby Rogers joined her compatriots in the second round with a 70-minute 6-2, 6-1 win over qualifier Lizette Cabrera.
Li, who reached her first WTA final at the Grampians Trophy in February, will next face No.2 seed Garbiñe Muguruza, while Rogers also takes on another big name in No.8 seed Bianca Andreescu.