WUHAN, China - No.9 seed Aryna Sabalenka had never faced a fellow Belarusian on the WTA Tour before last month - but she now owns two wins over her compatriots in her last three tournament openers, today sweeping Aliaksandra Sasnovich aside 6-1, 6-2 at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open.
Sabalenka, who also overcame Victoria Azarenka 3-6, 6-3, 6-4 in the first round of the US Open, maintained her 100% record against her Fed Cup teammates in a focused 66-minute performance to seal the first match of her career as a defending champion. (In August, the cancellation of the New Haven tournament meant that the 21-year-old was unable to defend her maiden title.)
Over the course of a dominant first set, Sabalenka impressed not only with her trademark power, which rocked her opponent back on her heels at times, but also with her sharpness in controlling the scoreboard. After racing through eight of the first 10 points for an immediate break, conceded with a Sasnovich double fault, the last five games of the opening act would all go to 30 - but Sabalenka, finding big first serves and keeping her ferocious strikes within the lines when she needed to, would win four of them to reel off a 26-minute set in which she had landed 72% of her first serves and won 78% of those points.
The Shenzhen champion continued to be clutch in the second set as Sasnovich began trying to diversify her tactics in an attempt to get a foothold in the match. Sabalenka would face break points for the first time in her first two service games of the match, and saved all three with booming first serves.
Meanwhile, she was raising her game even more on return, displaying brilliant defensive reflexes to complement her brutal first-strike power. Sabalenka would absorb all of Sasnovich's pace before redirecting a winner down the line to seal her first hold, and then carve out her own first break point of the set by chasing down a volley and lofting a pinpoint lob over the 25-year-old's head. In total, Sabalenka would maintain a positive ratio, striking 18 winners to 17 unforced errors.
Sasnovich, for her part, would find intermittent success by venturing to net when she could, but if one untimely double fault had been her first mistake of the match, several more would prove her undoing in the second set. The World No.50 would be broken four times in total - three of which saw her double fault down break point. The seventh game, which Sasnovich committed consecutive double faults to concede, was the final nail in the coffin; as if to rub salt in the wound, Sabalenka turned around and hammered down three service winners to reach triple match point, converting her second as a Sasnovich backhand found the net.
Up next for the defending champion in the second round will be Danielle Collins, who came through a rollercoaster opener against wildcard Venus Williams earlier.