As the Mubadala Abu Dhabi Open top seed, Elena Rybakina could be forgiven for feeling somewhat aggrieved at facing such a challenging opponent in her opening match on Thursday.
Danielle Collins may have entered the tournament as a qualifier, but she was no ordinary qualifier. The experienced American reached a career-high No 7 in the world rankings just 18 months ago and contested the Australian Open final in 2022.
She was also far more match-ready than Rybakina; while the Kazakh world No 5 had to wait four days to play her first match at Zayed Sports City – the result of being one of the top-four seeds to receive first-round byes – Collins had already played three times in four days, allowing her ample opportunity to adjust to the conditions.
It was no surprise, then, that Rybakina was forced to grind and dig deep, coming back from a set and a break down to secure a 4-6, 6-3, 6-3 victory on Stadium Court.
The 2022 Wimbledon champion will face Cristina Bucsa for a place in the semi-finals after the Spaniard defeated British qualifier Heather Watson 7-6, 7-5 in the last match of the day.
“I’m happy that I managed to win, it was a tough battle. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy, especially being the first match against such a good player,” Rybakina, 24, said. “She already had a couple of matches on this court, so really happy to win and go through to the next round.”
There was little between the two players in a closely contested opening set, with Collins earning the only break in the fifth game. Rybakina had her chance to pull level when the American was serving for the set but was unable to convert either break point.
Collins continued in the ascendancy at the start of the second set, breaking immediately for a 1-0 lead, and even after Rybakina levelled straight after, the qualifier had the advantage again at 3-2. The turning point of the match came in a marathon sixth game as Rybakina converted her fourth break point to start a run of three straight games to win the set and level the contest.
It was roles reversed at the start of the deciding set, Rybakina claiming the first break, only for Collins to strike straight back. The top seed then seized the momentum once and for all in a long fifth game, and after exchanging holds of serve, Rybakina broke again when Collins served to stay in the match, wrapping up the win in two hours and 20 minutes.
“It’s not easy here with the conditions, it’s quite slow; I have a really good serve, but it doesn’t help much and it’s difficult to get free points,” Rybakina said. “I knew that even at a break down I would get my opportunity and could take my chances.”
Fourth seed Barbora Krejcikova also got her tournament under way on Thursday, and in much less testing circumstances; the Czech world No 12 was 6-2, 1-0 up against Sara Sorribes Tormo when the Spaniard was forced to retire with a thumb injury.
Krejcikova will be first on Stadium Court again on Friday when she takes on last year’s finalist Liudmila Samsonova. The Russian eighth seed has been in fine form again this week and eased past Ukraine’s Anhelina Kalinina 6-1, 6-3.
The standout match on Friday will see Tunisian second seed Ons Jabeur face sixth-seeded Brazilian Beatriz Haddad Maia in the first match of the evening session. That will then be followed by Russian seventh seed Daria Kasatkina against Romania’s Sorana Cirstea.
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