Aryna Sabalenka slumps to shock defeat at DDF Tennis Championships

Second seed loses match for first time since claiming her second Australian Open title

Aryna Sabalenka's performance declined dramatically after winning the first set against Donna Vekic at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships. Reuters
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Australian Open champion Aryna Sabalenka fell to a surprise defeat at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Tuesday.

The second seed, inactive since her successful title defence at Melbourne Park last month, took a one-set lead against world No 31 Donna Vekic but couldn't capitalise on her advantage, ultimately losing 6-7, 6-3, 6-0.

Vekic has proved something of a problem for Sabalenka over the years and this defeat was her sixth in eight meetings with the Croatian.

Still, Sabalenka was the heavy favourite for this match in Dubai. The Belarusian had started the season in superb form, reaching the final of the Brisbane International and cruising to her second successive Australian Open title without dropping a set. In contrast, Vekic arrived in Dubai with a 4-3 win-loss record in 2024. The super-computer that produces pre-match win probabilities sided with Sabalenka at a whopping 88 per cent.

Sabalenka did not even lose a single service game at the Australian Open but it took Vekic just two to earn her first break. The world No 2 claimed immediate parity at 2-2 and looked to have assumed control of the match with a second break to lead 5-3, yet was uncharacteristically broken again when serving for the set.

Sabalenka was below her best but did enough to grind out a one-set lead in the tiebreak, and when she broke in the opening game of the second set, most would have expected her to run away with the match. Instead, Vekic first clawed her way back into the contest at 2-2 and then, against expectations, started to dominate.

With the set poised at 3-3, the Croatian won the next three games to level the match, starting a remarkable run of nine straight games to blow away an increasingly error-strewn Sabalenka in two hours and 22 minutes.

"We played a couple of times already, I know that I have a winning head-to-head. But she beat me in Australia last year in the quarter-finals. That one hurt quite a bit," Vekic, 27, said. "I'm happy to get the win today. She's obviously had a pretty good start to the year. She's in good form. So I'm really happy with that."

Now through to the third round and a match against Romania's Sorana Cirstea, Vekic admitted that she had low expectations for her Dubai campaign, insisting that the court conditions are "too fast for me". Yet, her performance against Sabalenka – and the statistics behind her victory – would suggest otherwise.

Vekic outserved arguably the best server on the WTA Tour, hammering down 14 aces to Sabalenka's eight and delivering just four double faults to her opponent's eight. She also got the better of the longer rallies, particularly in the last set and a half, comfortably taking Sabalenka's power and forcing her opponent into mistakes.

"It's honestly a great win. She just won the Australian Open. She's No 2 in the world. It's a bit also kind of like just another match," Vekic said. "I'm very happy to be in the third round. I will try to make my first Masters quarter-finals.

"To be honest, I didn't have big expectations coming to Dubai. I told my coach that I'm taking this week as a half-holiday. I can tell you I spent more time on the beach than on the court. Maybe that's a good way going forward!"

Sabalenka and Swiatek on competing in Dubai

Sabalenka and Swiatek on competing in Dubai

Sabalenka also said the conditions in Dubai didn't really suit her, either, but she refused to be too downcast by her earlier-than-expected defeat.

"I'm faking it," Sabalenka said with a laugh. "No, I mean, I've been on tour for a while. I know you can win and you can lose here. It's just a matter of how you look on all those losses, what you take from it, and what you going to learn.

"I'm just trying to stay positive and try to forget this interesting match. I've already started thinking about the next one and about the preparation and what can we do differently. If you keep working, if you keep fighting for it, you will get it. I'm just, like, trying to forget this match as fast as I can."

Updated: February 20, 2024, 3:26 PM