No.7 seed Jelena Ostapenko and No.6 seed Petra Kvitova got off to flying starts in the first round of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy. Ostapenko needed only 63 minutes to power past wildcard Wang Xinyu 6-1, 6-4, while Kvitova dispatched qualifier Jule Niemeier in 69 minutes.
No.1 seed Maria Sakkari joined them in the second round with her own straight-sets victory, defeating Anastasia Potapova in the night match.
Ostapenko's clash with Wang was an intriguing first-time matchup of two big hitters. The No.86-ranked Wang, a two-time Grand Slam junior doubles champion, cracked the Top 100 for the first time at the end of 2021, while former Roland Garros winner Ostapenko is perched at her highest ranking since March of 2019 after an uptick in consistent form.
The No.25-ranked Ostapenko was in strong form as she dominated a 24-minute first set and delivered a composed performance to recover from an early break down to take the second.
Keys to the match: The numbers reflect Ostapenko's success in getting the upper hand in the first-strike battle. She racked up 37 winners to Wang's 21. Her first serve was reliably efficient, and she dropped only two points behind it during the first set.
However, it was the former World No.5's ability to play her best tennis on big points that was even more crucial. A deep forehand return sealed the double break in the first set, and three straight service winners enabled her to close it out with a minimum of fuss.
A patch of unforced errors left Ostapenko trailing 2-0 in the second set, but a series of breathtaking returns followed by a backhand winner garnered the break back. By now, improved serving from Wang was enabling the Chinese 20-year-old to pose more of a threat scoreboard-wise, but Ostapenko found a flurry of brilliant winners to fend off two more break points to hold for 3-3.
Eventually, she brought up her own opportunity to break through with a return winner at 4-4, and converted as Wang went wide with a backhand. Ostapenko served out the victory emphatically, finishing with a quartet of unreturnable serves.
What's next for Ostapenko: A second-round clash against former World No.9 Andrea Petkovic, who overturned a 4-0 first-set deficit against qualifier Rebecca Peterson to come through 7-6(5), 6-2 in 1 hour and 42 minutes. Ostapenko and Petkovic have split four previous meetings with two wins apiece (one each via retirement).
Former champion Kvitova marches on; Pavlyuchenkova withdraws
Kvitova, who took the title here in 2018, put a disappointing January behind her with a ruthless display of power. The Czech had scored only one victory in four matches in Australia, and had needed to save match points against Arantxa Rus for that win.
But back on her favoured indoor hard courts, where she has lifted five of her 28 career trophies, Kvitova was dominant in every area. She efficiently handcuffed Niemeier with hard, deep returns at the German's feet, and her own serving was impeccable - not least in a perfect service game comprising four straight aces to close out the first set.
In total, Kvitova struck 30 winners to Niemeier's 27, and committed 27 unforced errors to her opponent's 37. She broke the Niemeier serve five times, and saved the two break points she faced, both in the second game of the second set. Next up for Kvitova will be either Zhang Shuai or Irina-Camelia Begu.
Meanwhile, No.4 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova was forced to withdraw from her home tournament due to a left knee injury. The Russian was replaced in the draw by lucky loser Bernarda Pera, who fell 7-6(3), 6-4 to last year's quarterfinalist Jaqueline Cristian.
Elsewhere, Aliaksandra Sasnovich maintained her dominant record against Magda Linette with a 7-5, 4-6, 6-4 victory in 2 hours and 22 minutes. The Belarusian led 7-5, 2-0 before Linette mounted a comeback, but held firm in the final set to extend her head-to-head lead to 6-1 dating back to 2012.
Top seed Sakkari fights past Potapova
In the nightcap match on Sibur Arena, No.1 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece clinched two tight sets in her 6-4, 6-4 victory over Russian hope Anastasia Potapova.
A St. Petersburg semifinalist in 2020, World No.7 Sakkari had to claw back from a first-set deficit and stave off a litany of break points before collecting the 1-hour and 43-minute win over 75th-ranked Potapova.
"I managed to find a way to win, which is the most important thing, to give myself another chance tomorrow to play a lot better," Sakkari said afterwards. "I just found solutions when I was down in the score, just tried to make more balls than her and tried to make her feel a little uncomfortable than usual."
Powerful hitting by Potapova gave the Russian a commanding 4-1 lead in the first set, but Sakkari drew the Russian into a host of errors as the set wore on. The top seed eventually claimed the next seven games successively to move ahead by a set and a break.
After leveling the second set at 2-2, Potapova had three break points to move ahead 5-3 and serve for the set. But Sakkari was able to fend the trio off to hold for 4-4, then swiftly broke in the next game to jump ahead 5-4.
The Greek served out the match in style, having saved 12 of the 14 break points she faced all day.
Sakkari will next face another Russian, World No.43 Ekaterina Alexandrova, in the second round. Sakkari holds a 3-1 lead in their head-to-head.
"Alexandrova, she’s a very tough opponent, she hits hard, she likes to play fast and attack every single ball," said Sakkari. "But I trust my game, I trust the fact that I can get better every day."