Doha: WTA 1000 kicks off with Azarenka thriller

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The Qatar TotalEnergies Open began in Doha on Sunday with a come-back thriller by Victoria Azarenka, who fought from a double-break down in the 3rd set and saved a match point to get past Yulia Putintseva in the opening round, while Clara Tauson upset Belinda Bencic, and both Amanda Anisimova and Alizé Cornet prevailed in night matches.

It was a very tough match. know Belinda [Bencic] is playing very well so I had to play my best today, and I did sometimes. I have my confidence but every match is really tough at this level, so I’m doing my best. Clara Tauson

“Wins like this are sometimes more important than a clean match, because you find a way when you’re not playing well,” Azarenka said on court, after the match. “You just try to find a window, try to find an opportunity.

“I feel like I didn’t play really well today, but I was fighting for everything. I didn’t really look that the score was down.

“I knew that I have to keep going, I will find my opportunity, and I’m really glad I stuck [with it] here.”

The former World No 1 Belarusian, who won back-to-back Doha titles in 2012 and 2013, outlasted Putintseva of Kazakhstan, 5-7 6-2 7-5, after a 2 hour 48 minute gripping battle.

Down 0-4 in the deciding set, the No 12 seed saved the. first of two match points at 5-4 before edging past Putintseva, the World No 42.

Azarenka won 74 percent of her first-service points and fired 51 winners overall to eke out the win and move to 6-3 for the 2022 season so far.

She had numerous chances to take command of the first set but was often stymied on break points, going 1-for-13 in the opener.

Putintseva used pinpoint passing and fine foot speed to keep pace, and was rewarded with a break in the last game, following a deep return with a successful drop-shot.

Azarenka regrouped in the second, charging to a 4-0 lead before holding firm to level the match at a set apiece, but dogged defence by the Kazakh forced errors from the Belarusian early in the third enabled Putintseva to move ahead 4-0.

Azarenka chipped away at the double-break lead to pull back on serve but, at 5-4, Putintseva held a match point after the two-time Grand Slam champion struck long on her backhand, but the Kazakh missed her chance after a long service return, allowing Azarenka to hold for 5-5.

The 12th seed took charge from there, breaking Putintseva for a 6th time to go up 6-5, and then serving out the match for the tightest of victories.

Azarenka will have her first meeting with Madison Brengle in the second round after the American defeated Turkish wild-card Ipek Oz, 7-5 6-3.

Clara Tauson also needed 3 sets to upset Belinda Bencic on Day 1 of Doha

© Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Tauson, the Danish teenager, also needed 3 sets and just under 2 hours to upset Bencic, the Tokyo 2020 gold medallist, 6-4 3-6 6-3, in her Doha debut.

“It was a very tough match,” said Tauson, who played her first main-draw match at a WTA 1000 event. “I know Belinda is playing very well so I had to play my best today, and I did sometimes.

“I have my confidence but every match is really tough at this level, so I’m doing my best.”

Tauson rallied from 4-2 down in the first set by winning 4 straight games, and the last 10 points.

Although she led by a set and a break at 6-4, 1-0, Tauson ultimately needed to win the match in a third set after she lost 4 consecutive games from that point.

The World No 33 lost just 4 points on her serve in the final set, landing a stunning 88% of her first deliveries, with the decisive break against Bencic coming in the 4th game and Tauson winning 12 of the 13 points in her last 3 service games to complete the upset.

Tauson is due to meet Spain’s No 3 seed Paula Badosa in the second round.

Anisimova notched up her first-round win by defeating Brazilian qualifier Beatriz Haddad Maia, 7-5 6-4, in an hour and 27 minutes.

The American is now 9-1 in WTA main-draw matches thus far in 2022, having won 8 matches in a row to start the year, capturing her second career title at Melbourne Summer Set 2 before upsetting defending champion Naomi Osaka to reach the round of 16 at the Australian Open.

Alizé Cornet of France won the nightcap, outlasting Russia’s Liudmila Samsonova, 3-6 6-4 7-5, after a 2 hour and 25-minute match that ended just before 1am local time.

Cornet, who reached her first Grand Slam quarter-final at the age of 31 last month at the Australian Open, in what was her 63rd main draw appearance at a Major, which set a new record, will now face No 1 seed Aryna Sabalenka in the second round.

The Belarusian, alongside the other top seeds, received a bye in the 2nd round.

Also in action on Sunday was American Jessica Pegula, the 9th seed, who dispatched the Czech Republic’s Katerina Siniakova, 6-3 6-2.

The World No 14 converted 4 of her 9 break points and won 70 percent of second-service return points against Siniakova, the current WTA Doubles World No.1.

Pegula, who reached the Doha semi-finals last year as a qualifier, will face qualifier Kaja Juvan in the next round after the Slovenian defeated another qualifier, Stefanie Voegele of Switzerland, 6-4 6-2.

Ann Li claimed a second-round spot as well, after she knocked out 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, 6-3 6-7(5) 6-3, in an all-American affair.

Serving for the match at 6-3, 5-4, Li was unable to close, and Kenin stole the second set in the tiebreak.

Li recovered in the decider, however, winning 10 straight points as she collected a 5-2 lead and holding on from there to win in an hour and 54 minutes and her reward is her first meeting with No 6 seed Maria Sakkari of Greece.

Garbiñe Muguruza headlines Monday’s schedule at the Qatar TotalEnergies Open in Doha

© Francois Nel/Getty Images

Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza, the 5th seed, headlines Monday’s schedule as she takes on Sorana Cîrstea in the round of 32 after the Romanian beat Egypt’s Mayar Sherif, 6-2 6-1.

The seeds in the top quarter are Poland’s Iga Swiatek, No 11 seed Elena Rybakina, and Angelique Kerber.

Kerber was the 2014 Doha runner-up, but will meet this week’s Dubai quarter-finalist Jil Teichmann in a tough first-round tie.

Former Qatar Open winner Vera Zvonareva from Russia received a wild-card and is also in the top quarter, where she will play Belgian Alison van Uytvanck.

Badosa is placed in the second quarter, where the Greek No 1 Maria Sakkari is at the other end of the section.

Sakkari will take on the winner of the opener between 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin and Ann Li.

Coco Gauff is seeded 14th and takes on compatriot Shelby Rogers with a potential meeting with unseeded former World No 1 Simona Halep lurking in the second round.

Halep faces wild-card Caroline Garcia in the first round.

No 4 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia and No 8 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia head up an equally quality-packed third quarter, which also features No 10 seed Elina Svitolina and No 16 seed Elise Mertens.

The 2019 Qatar Open winner Mertens will meet Italy’s Jasmine Paolini in this year’s opening round with the winner potentially going on to meet defending champion, Czech Petra Kvitova.

Petra Kvitova is the defending champion in Doha, having defeated Garbiñe Muguruza for the title last year

© Mohamed Farag/Getty Images

Kvitova, who has twice won the Doha title in 2018 and last year, and along with her 2020 runner-up showing has an impressive record at the Qatar Open, faces off against Irina-Camelia Begu in the first round.

The bottom quarter is anchored by 2nd seed Barbora Krejcikova of the Czech Republic, and Muguruza, who is a two-time Doha finalist, and has twice fallen to Kvitova in the championship match in both 2018 and last year.

Azarenka is also in lower quarter, as she seeks her 3rd Doha title, as is red-hot Jelena Ostapenko, who won Dubai on Saturday and made it all the way to the Doha final in 2016.

Ostapenko plays a qualifier in her Doha opener, and she could meet surging Anisimova in the second round.

Doha kicks off the WTA 1000 season and concludes the Middle East swing.

The Qatar TotalEnergies Open and Dubai Duty Free Championships alternate between WTA 1000 and WTA 500 levels each year.

This year the tournament features a 56-player singles draw and 28-team doubles draw, with the singles final to be played on Saturday, 26 February at 6pm, and the doubles final on Friday, 25 February after the two singles semi-finals.

The only Top 10 players missing from the Doha field are World No 1 Ash Barty, who opted to skip the Middle East swing, and No 4 Karolina Pliskova, who is still recovering from an ongoing hand injury that has delayed her start to the season.

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