Elena Rybakina hints at repeat of 2020 hot streak after cruising into Abu Dhabi quarter-finals

Kazakh sixth seed has been imperious in the capital and next faces an in-form Aryna Sabalenka

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 10:  Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan in action against Daria Kasatkina of Russia during her Women's Singles match on Day Five of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open at Zayed Sports City on January 10, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Elena Rybakina will be hoping history is repeating itself. This time last year, the 21-year-old Kazakh was embarking on a WTA Tour-leading start to the season that would comprise four finals in her first five tournaments, including at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships.

The five-month shutdown in response to the coronavirus pandemic stunted her momentum somewhat, although she did still reach her sixth final of the year in Strasbourg the week prior to the French Open.

Now 12 months on from the start of her breakthrough, the world No 19 looks to be at it again as she extended her fine form in the UAE by reaching the quarter-finals of the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Tennis Open on Sunday.

Rybakina is yet to concede a set in the capital and was imperious once again in defeating Russia's Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 6-4 in the third round. Kasatkina, a former world No 10 who is starting to trend towards her best tennis, represented a tough challenge, so this was a test of the sixth seed's credentials. She simply had too much power and class for her opponent.

"I played well today and I was focused because I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy match," Rybakina said. "My concentration dropped for a few games but overall it was a good match."

Such has been her fine form in Abu Dhabi, comparisons to her 2020 start are already being mentioned. But for Rybakina, it's not about measuring herself against past success but striving to get even better.

"It was a good year last year but it's in the past, so I have to focus on this one," she said. "I had a good pre-season so I think I can keep playing like I did last year and I’ve already started with good wins. I’m focusing on every match and no matter the result, I have to see improvements from last year.

"So far it’s going well and tomorrow I have a tough match, so hopefully I can keep going."

Rybakina does indeed have a tough match on Monday when she takes on fourth seed Aryna Sabalenka for a place in the semi-finals. Sabalenka also impressed in her third-round win over Tunisian 15th seed Ons Jabeur to extend her winning streak to 12 matches, and the Belarusian will likely give Rybakina the best indicator of her level ahead of next month's Australian Open.

"We both play really aggressive. I have to focus on my serve because it’s a big weapon in my game," Rybakina said. "I need to try and be focused on every point. Aryna is a fighter and no matter what, it’s going to be a difficult match."