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By Richard Pagliaro | Sunday, January 10, 2021

Sofia Kenin

Top-seeded Sofia Kenin denied match point at 5-6 rallying for a 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 comeback win over Yulia Putintseva to set up an Abu Dhabi quarterfinal vs. Maria Sakkari.

Photo credit: Getty Images

The walls were closing in on Sofia Kenin as she stared down match point in the second set.

A cornered Kenin created revival as an exit strategy.

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The top seed saved match point at 5-6 sparking a scrappy 3-6, 7-6(5), 6-4 comeback win over Yulia Putintseva that sent her into the Abu Dhabi WTA Women’s Tennis Open quarterfinals.

Second seeded Elina Svitolina showed strong survival skills saving two match points in the final tie breaker in a gripping 6-2, 6-7(5), 7-6(8) over Ekaterina Alexandrova.

Svitolina snapped off her sixth ace to erase the first match point at 5-6. Two points later Alexandrova lined up a backhand but netted it then plopped to the court in disgust as Svitolina evened the breaker at 7-all.

A stinging serve down the middle brought Svitolina a second match point and when the 17th-seeded Russian scattered a forehand wide Svitolina was through in two hours, 25 minutes. It's a gut-wrenching loss for Alexandrova yet still should serve as an encouraging experience. The Russian stood toe-to-toe with a Top 10 player and often called the shots; this is a loss she should learn from.

The first meeting between the sometime sparring partners Kenin and Putintseva was a fierce battle that was often more high drama than high quality. The pair combined for 100 unforced errors.

At times, Kenin was her own worst enemy committing seven double faults, including a three double fault game to gift Putintseva the lone break of the opening set and a 4-2 lead.

Tennis Express

Prone to patches of sloppy shotmaking at the start, the Australian Open champion showed her appetite for the fight and her skill striking all the targets with her compact two-handed backhand to key the comeback.

The feisty Putintseva played smart tennis at the outset sometimes mixing in no pace slice backhands and heavy topspin forehands to pose varying heights on her shots to the 5’7” American.

Kenin broke for a 3-1 second-set lead and served for the set at 5-3 only to commit a cluster of forehand errors and donate the break. Kenin’s sixth double fault gave Putintseva a break point in the 11th game and she drew a forehand error to break for 6-5.

The world No. 28 split the sideline with an ace for match point. Putintseva was one point from her fifth Top 5 victory, but in the ensuing rally she was reluctant to pull the trigger on a couple of attackable forehands and paid the price. Kenin wrenched back control of the rally forcing a slice backhand error to save the match point.

Turning her shoulders into her shots, Kenin hit a pair of winners and drew a forehand error breaking back to force the tiebreaker.

Firing a forehand down the line, Putintseva went up 3-1 in the breaker. Again, Kenin dug down with defiance reeling off five of the next six points for double set point.

On her second set point, Kenin banged a brilliant backhand winner down the line leaving Putintseva tossing her Babolat racquet ruing lost opportunity.

Despite 26 unforced errors, the Roland Garros runner-up was more precise on pivotal points taking the 64-minute second set to force a decider.

Taming her forehand in the latter stages of the second set, Kenin unleashed her punishing backhand breaking to open the third set. Kenin cranked a crosscourt backhand for break point and gained the opening break when Putintseva tapped a drop shot int net.

Undeterred, Putintseva mixed her spins and heights following a low slice backhand with a heavy, high-bouncing topspin forehand drawing an errant forehand to break back.

No matter what turbulence Kenin encounters during a match, her two-hander is an unwavering weapon. Though Putintseva built a 40-love lead in the fifth game, Kenin was whipping her backhand into all corners of the court. Measuring a high-bouncing ball, the Australian Open champion drilled a crosscourt backhand winner earning her fourth break for 3-2.

Growing in confidence, Kenin confirmed the break at love for 4-2 then rattled out a wild forehand error from her sometime practice partner breaking again for 5-2.

Serving for the quarterfinals for a second time, Kenin saw two match points come and go. Both women were grunting more forcefully when Kenin missed a forehand to face a break point. But Putintseva failed to put a backhand return in play.

On her third match point, Kenin finally found the finish line as Putintseva missed a forehand to end a two hour-and-a-half hour fight.

It probably won’t get any easier for Kenin, who faces ninth-seeded Maria Sakkari for a semifinal spot.

Sakkari continued her confident performance this week charging into her third quarterfinal in her last five events.

Sakkari smacked 11 aces and saved 12 of 13 break points topping 2020 Australian Open finalist Garbine Muguruza 7-5, 6-4.

On match point, Sakkari slice her 11th ace down the middle to close an impressive win in one hour, 52 minutes.

It is Sakkari’s fifth Top 20 win in the past 13 months as the world No. 22 pushes for a Top 20 return. Sakkari has not dropped a set in tournament victories over 19-year-old Anastasia Potapova, 16-year-old Coco Gauff and Muguruza.

Earlier, red-hot Aryna Sabalenka stretched her career-best winning streak to 12 matches with a 6-2, 6-4 sweep of Ons Jabeur.

Empowered by her run to successive titles in Ostrava and Linz to end 2020, Sabalenka has swept through six straight sets this week with wins over Polona Hercog, Ajla Tomljanovic and now the 15th-seeded Jabeur.

The hard-hitting Belarusian will try to keep rolling when she faces Elena Rybakina for a semifinal spot.

No. 6-seeded Rybakina repelled Russian Daria Kasatkina 6-3, 6-4 on the strength of some commanding serving. An old tennis adage tells us you’re only as good as your second serve. Rybakina was sharp on second serve winning 15 of 19 second-serve points and facing just one break point in a 68-minute win.

The 21-year-old Kazakhstani baseliner has dropped serve just twice in three tournament victories this week.


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