Centre Court on Day 2 of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships proved a graveyard for former champions after Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic were both routinely eliminated in the first round.
Svitolina, the champion in 2017 and 2018, continued her difficult start to the season with a 6-2, 6-1 defeat at the hands of American qualifier Jennifer Brady, before title holder Bencic squandered her flying start to lose 6-1, 1-6, 1-6 against Russia’s Anasatsia Pavlyuchenkova.
Svitolina and Bencic met in last year’s semi-final and produced a high-quality contest, which played its small part in largely successful seasons for both players.
The Ukrainian went on to reach successive Grand Slam semi-finals, at Wimbledon and the US Open, and ended the year with a run to the final at the WTA Finals in Shenzhen.
Bencic, meanwhile, claimed her first title after more than four injury-disrupted years, also reached the US Open last-four, as well as returning to the top-10.
Almost 12 months on, their respective form and fortunes could not be more different. For Svitolina, this latest loss only compounds what has been a below-par start to the season by her typically high standards. She has now managed just four wins against five losses, including a 6-4, 6-2 reverse against world No 82 Nao Hibino at the Thailand Open last week.
"I'm trying still to find what's going on, what I have to add to improve," Svitolina said as she attempted to process her downturn in form. "It's very tough to pick one thing. I think everything has to come together. I have to be stronger physically, I have to be in better shape. Everything has to get better.
"We're working hard, but something is maybe not right. We will continue working and trying to find that particular moment where I will feel better and play better."
Bencic was similarly flummoxed, after her defeat to Pavlyuchenkova extended her own underwhelming start to 2020 to six wins and six losses, one of those to 17-year-old Canadian junior Leylah Fernandez – ranked No 187 – in the Fed Cup.
"I'm certainly not very happy," the Swiss world No 4 said. "Of course, I'm disappointed. I feel like I have to work very hard to regain my confidence. I will definitely do that. I will give everything in every practice to be confident again.
"Hopefully, one or two matches it can turn the momentum, it can just click, then I can turn things around."
Svitolina started her match encouragingly by earning break points on Brady’s serve, but when serving at 2-3, the Ukrainian’s game fell apart. She was restricted to just three points for the remainder of the set as Brady took control, the world No 58’s greater power and aggression paying dividends.
From there, “I was able to just keep my foot on the gas,” Brady said, as the American marched into an unassailable 4-0 lead in the second set.
Svitolina gave herself a flicker of hope when she broke back for 4-1, but it proved a false dawn as Brady immediately reclaimed the two-break advantage. Svitolina was put out of her misery when Brady fired home an ace to book her place in the second round and a meeting with French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova.
Bencic’s collapse may have taken place slightly later in the match, but it was no less dramatic.
After winning the first 19 points, marching into a 5-0 lead and claiming the first set in 25 minutes, the Swiss appeared on course for a simple start to her title defence. When she broke Pavlyuchenkova in the first game of the second set, few could have envisioned what would then unfold.
Pavlyuchenkova dug deep and, as she said, “kept on fighting”. It worked and she reeled off nine straight games to take the second set and open up a 3-0 lead in the decider. Even after Bencic broke back for 3-1, there was no resisting Pavlyuchenkova, who took the next three games to complete a remarkable turnaround victory.
“Mentally I was quite positive, just playing point by point, even though it was 5-0,” Pavlyuchenkova said.
“I think it helped me going into the second set because I took that mentality of being positive and fighting, trying to do my thing. I was like, ‘you know what, doesn't matter what the score is, just play’. Slowly I just started to turn it around and started to find my game.”