ZHUHAI, China - No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka records the first win of the 2018 Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai in style, moving past Ashleigh Barty in straight sets to top the Orchid Group.
One of the hottest players of the season, 20-year-old Sabalenka is the youngest competitor in the tournament's four-year history. The Zhuhai debutante also leads the pack in main draw matches won, with 45 under her belt coming into her opening match.
She kept up that torrid form against No.9 seed Barty, last year’s semifinalist, triumphing 6-4, 6-4 after just under an hour and a half on court.
“I had a little bit rest [since Tianjin] and then it was practicing for two weeks to be ready for this tournament,” Sabalenka told press. “I was missing to play tennis, like matches. I'm so happy with this start with a win.
“I think it helps to have a few weeks off. And then [my coach Dmitry Tursunov and I] didn't care about the result. We just care about the future and trying to change something in my game.
“Now is the last tournament, and probably after I will try to do something. But at the moment, we're just trying to find the way how I can improve more.”
Sabalenka came into the match with a clear game plan, attacking Barty with strong aggression from the baseline and following balls into the net to close down points. She was rewarded in the very first game, making a fast start to lead 2-0 with an early break.
Barty’s slice and variety troubled Sabalenka, creating a break chance at 2-1 that would have leveled the score - but the Belarusian held firm to extend her lead to 3-1. The Australian was unable to recover from her early misstep, and that lone break made the difference in the opening set as Sabalenka closed it out with a strong hold to love.
But while the Belarusian’s level was nearly untouchable in the first set, her form seemed to take a dip in the second. Barty pounced on the chances coming her way, grabbing her first break of the match at 3-1 as Sabalenka’s unforced error count grew.
Sabalenka didn’t allow the Aussie’s lead to last too long, however, and she recovered emphatically with a break straight back at 3-2. She reeled off four games in a row to slam the door closed on all of Barty’s comeback efforts, serving out her first victory in Zhuhai after an hour and 26 minutes.
“I think today in particular her serve was the difference and getting that first strike, controlling the points of her first serves and behind her first serves,” Barty acknowledged.
“Disappointed not to come away with a win, but I have another opportunity in the next few days to finish my season on a real high.”
Sabalenka has built up a well-deserved reputation for going the distance, winning 21 three-set matches this year - more than anyone on tour - but she’s also lethal when she has an early lead: today’s win against Barty is her 20th consecutive match that she’s won after taking the first set.
“I think I played well in the first set,” Sabalenka assessed. “In the second set, I started to probably rush a little bit and make mistakes, sometimes stupid mistakes.
“I think she helped me a little bit in the last few games. I'm not happy with that because I was kind of making some s**t points.
“I think my game was quite good, just about a few stupid moments in the game. It was great match for me and for her, I think.”
Up next, Sabalenka will face Caroline Garcia, who rounds out the Orchid Group, as she seeks to improve on her 13-3 record in China.