EASTBOURNE, Great Britain - No.16 seed Anett Kontaveit was able to narrowly avoid the upset in the first round of the Nature Valley International, coming from a set down to overcome wildcard Harriet Dart 3-6, 6-4, 6-2 in one hour and 56 minutes.
The Estonian, who struck 30 winners to 33 unforced errors, thus snaps a three-match losing streak, notching up her first grass-court victory of the season over the player with whom she reached the second round of the Australian Open in doubles in January. Dart, for her part, has now forced a deciding set in two of her three meetings with Top 20 players - but as in her first-round loss to Karolina Pliskova at Wimbledon last year was unable to close the deal today, falling away towards the end of the final set.
Nonetheless, returning to the scene of her maiden WTA main draw win last year over Kristyna Pliskova, the Briton delivered a performance characterized by smart grass-court patterns and strong serving to take advantage of an error-strewn Estonian for a set and a half.
Though Kontaveit staved off an early break point in the third game with clutch serving of her own, the 23-year-old was not hitting her targets with any consistent accuracy, racking up 17 unforced errors to only six winners across the first set.
An on-court visit from coach Nigel Sears after the sixth game failed to settle the Stuttgart finalist; indeed, Kontaveit would immediately drop serve for the first time in the subsequent game with four wayward forehands.
Dart, meanwhile, was increasingly warming to her task. Moving smoothly and striking precisely, the World No.157's variety on her backhand was a particular highlight today, whether using the short slice to pull Kontaveit into net and set up the pass, finding a delightful angle on the dropshot to reach set point or firing bullets down the line.
However, the second set would find Kontaveit gradually regaining a semblance of control over her power, particularly on return.
Wild returning had allowed Dart sufficient free points to cruise on serve in the first set, but Kontaveit was able to find her marks to pile pressure on the 22-year-old, carving out her first break points of the match in the fifth game and finally capturing the Dart serve two games later as the wildcard slipped while stretching to reach a boomer of a backhand return.
Dart regained her composure after a medical timeout, but that break would prove crucial: with her ratio now more positive at 13 winners to seven unforced errors, a sequence of ruthless serve-forehand combinations enabled Kontaveit to close out the set with little drama.
The World No.20 did not let up as the match headed into a decider, with more powerful returns and forehands garnering her an immediate break as she began to assert her authority and superior weight of shot off the ground.
After fending off two break-back points in the second game, Kontaveit accelerated towards the finishing line: from 3-2 up, the 2017 's-Hertogenbosch champion reeled off 12 of the final 13 points of the match, breaking Dart for a second time with another banger of a backhand return and sealing victory on her first match point as the home player sent a slice into the net.