Swiatek and Sabalenka experience mixed fortunes at Dubai Tennis Championships

World No 1 comes through a tough battle with Stephens after world No 2 loses for a sixth time in eight meetings against Vekic

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Tuesday at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships saw the two biggest guns on the WTA Tour enter the fray, but while one successfully navigated a tricky first encounter, the other seriously misfired.

World No 1 Iga Switaek and second-ranked Aryna Sabalenka are the two most dominant forces in women's tennis, winning five of the past eight Grand Slam titles between them. Both arrived in Dubai in ominous form, Switaek claiming her first trophy of the season by winning her third straight Qatar Open title and Sabalenka returning to action for the first time since defending her Australian Open crown.

By the end of Day 3 in Dubai, Swiatek maintained her winning run in the Middle East as Sabalenka began to pack her bags for the United States.

As two of the top eight seeds, Swiatek and Sabalenka received byes through to the second round, and neither was handed particularly easy introductions; awaiting Swiatek was former world No 4 and US Open champion Sloane Stephens, while Sabalenka was drawn against Donna Vekic, who had beaten her in five of their seven previous meetings.

Competing in the second match on the stadium court, Sabalenka experienced a monumental collapse. The Belarusian second seed led Croatia's Vekic by a set and a break, only to fall to a 6-7, 6-3, 6-0 defeat.

Two matches later – after Abu Dhabi champion and fourth seed Elena Rybakina scraped past Victoria Azarenka, who retired injured early in the third set – Swiatek battled past Stephens 6-4, 6-4 in a highly competitive contest.

Despite her poor record against Vekic, Sabalenka was still the heavy favourite for this match in Dubai. The world No 2 cruised to her second successive Australian Open title without dropping a set in her most recent outing. 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 lose a single service game at the Australian Open but it took Vekic just two to earn her first break. The Belarusian 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.

"The whole match when I was leading ... I didn't feel like I was up. The level was so bad today from me," Sabalenka, 25, said. "She was serving well and playing well. [My] level wasn't there at all."

Despite the defeat, Sabalenka maintained her positive outlook and will now focus on the immediate future as the WTA Tour next heads to the United States for the Indian Wells and Miami Open 'sunshine double'.

"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. It's just a matter of how you look at 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."

In the first evening match on Tuesday, Swiatek kept alive her bid for the Doha-Dubai double but was pushed close by Stephens. Both players struggled on serve in the opening set, but it was a case of Stephens struggling a little bit more, allowing Swiatek to claim one more break – a fourth – to take a one-set lead.

The second set was the complete opposite as Swiatek and Stephens gave little away on serve, but once again the American wobbled while serving to stay in the match at 4-5. Having saved 10 of 14 break points, world No 41 Stephens gave Swiatek one more on match point, which the Pole took with a winner down the line.

"Sloane played really well, we played many games that went to deuce and had break points, and we couldn't convert so because of that it was a really interesting match," said 22-year-old Swiatek, who reached the Dubai final last year.

Next up for the world No 1 is a tantalising third-round showdown with two-time Dubai champion Elina Svitolina. Their head-to-head is tied at one apiece, with Ukraine's Svitolina winning the most recent encounter at Wimbledon last year.

"We have a lot of respect for each other, we know each other pretty well," Swiatek said of Svitolina. "We played a tough match at Wimbledon and I learned a lot, so I'm just going to learn my lesson and play a bit better."

Sabalenka and Swiatek on competing in Dubai

Sabalenka and Swiatek on competing in Dubai
Updated: February 20, 2024, 5:57 PM