Sofia Kenin displays Grand Slam pedigree to grind into Abu Dhabi quarter-finals
Top seed saves match point against Putintseva set up a showdown with Sakkari
Sofia Kenin knows better than most how to handle the big pressure moments of a tennis match. This, after all, is a player who saved three vital break points during last year's Australian Open final on her way to winning her first Grand Slam title.
The stakes may have been somewhat lower in Kenin's third-round match against Yulia Putintseva at the Abu Dhabi WTA Women's Open on Sunday, but the tournament top seed needed to call on the same grit and composure to advance to the quarter-finals.
Kenin, 22, was staring at a shock defeat when Putintseva served for the match at 6-5 in the second set having won the first 6-3. Facing match point, the world No 4 kept her cool, snuffed out the danger, and won the game and subsequent tie-break.
Kenin may have been some way short of her best, but she still managed to drag herself into a 5-2 lead in the decider.
Even after she faltered when serving for the match the first time round, there was no denying her on the second attempt as she wrapped up a battling victory in two hours and 41 minutes.
"I felt like today was more of a mental match," Kenin said. "Of course, it was physical too and I didn’t play the way I wanted to play, but she played really well.
"I guess it helps being a Grand Slam champion, knowing what to do at those tough points and moments and I was able to find my rhythm at the end. I just had to find a way to battle through, so I was happy with the way I fought."
Kenin and Putintseva had never met before in a WTA Tour match but as regular practice partners, they know each other's games inside out and, despite being ranked 24 places lower, Kenin reveals it is the Kazakh who normally has the upper hand in training.
"I can definitely take away some confidence," the American said. "I’m always losing to her in practice so I’m happy to get a bit of revenge when it counted!"
Kenin is yet to display her best form in Abu Dhabi and she will likely need to find another level to get past her quarter-final opponent and reach the last four.
Maria Sakkari set up her showdown with Kenin by edging fifth seed Garbine Muguruza 7-5, 6-4 for her third successive straight-sets win.
The Greek ninth seed outdid Kenin in the clutch tennis stakes by saving 12 of 13 break points against the Spaniard. While Muguruza could rue a few missed opportunities, most of the saves were down to excellent play by Sakkari, particularly on her serve.
"I was in trouble a lot in the match in terms of facing break points, but I came up with some good serves when I needed them," Sakkari said. "Even though it’s still only the first tournament, I’m super happy that I can play this way because other years I was struggling in the first couple of weeks."
Kenin and Sakkari are part of a top heavy part of the draw that also comprises the quarter-final match between fourth seed Aryna Sabalenka and sixth seed Elena Rybakina.
In the bottom half, Elina Svitolina showed Kenin what grinding out a win really looks like after the second seed saved two match points to defeat Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-3, 7-6, 7-6.
Svitolina looked in total control after comfortably winning the first set and moving into a 2-0 lead in the second. But once 17th seed Alexandrova found her range and started to play more aggressively, the momentum quickly switched in her favour to win the second set tie-break.
Trailing a break for most of the third set, Svitolina clawed her way back into the match at 5-5 after converting her only break point of the set and another tense tie-break was required to decide the winner.
Alexandrova twice had the chance to seal victory but she was unable to convert either match point. Eventually, an errant forehand wide from the world No 33 eventually handed Svitolina the win after two-and-a-half hours of gruelling tennis.
Svitolina, 26, faces Russia's Veronika Kudermetova in Monday's quarter-finals after the world No 46 defeated Spain's Paula Badosa Gibert 6-4, 4-6, 6-1.
The remaining quarter-final will be contested by Ukrainian world No 99 Marta Kostyuk and 66th-ranked Spaniard Sara Sorribes Tormo.
Updated: January 10, 2021 09:00 PM