Belinda Bencic begins her Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships title defense against Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, who won their only previous outdoor hard-court meeting, on Tuesday.
Bencic vs Pavlyuchenkova is live from Dubai on Tuesday 18 February at 3.30pm local/11.30am GMT
As the WTA have pointed out, Bencic has oddly enough never won a match as the defending champion at a WTA Tour event – can she snap that streak as she takes on Pavlyuchenkova in Dubai?
Although she was already well on her way back up the rankings in 2018 after struggling with back and foot injuries and dropping out of the top 100 in 2017, Bencic’s stupendous run to the title in Dubai in February 2019 was more than the equal of her brilliant title run at the Rogers Cup in 2015 and sparked the return of the Swiss player as a force at the top of women’s tennis. Unseeded and ranked world no. 45, Bencic defeated four top-10 players in consecutive three-set battles – Aryna Sabalenka, Simona Halep, two-time champion Elina Svitolina (who was on a 12-match winning streak in Dubai) and Petra Kvitova – to take the Premier-5 title.
Bencic brought the same form to Indian Wells, and would extend her Dubai winning streak to 12 matches in total (including two more wins over top-10 players, Karolina Pliskova and Naomi Osaka) to reach the BNP Paribas Open semifinals before finally succumbing. The run propelled her back into the top 20 and as Bencic continued to notch up excellent achievements – a semifinal run in Madrid, runner-up finish in Mallorca, US Open semifinalist and Kremlin Cup champion – she surged into the top 10, crowning her season with a run to the semifinals on her debut at the WTA Finals.
Bencic had to retire against Svitolina in the third set of the semifinals in Shenzhen, but it had been an incredible season for the Swiss player. Now comes the hard task of backing it up – and it hasn’t been a resoundingly successful start to 2020 for Bencic, who is 6-5; she won back-to-back matches in Adelaide, where she made the quarterfinals before losing to Danielle Collins, and at the Australian Open, where she was absolutely trounced in the third round by Anett Kontaveit, getting just one game against the Estonian. But she failed to do so in Shenzhen, losing in the first round to Anna Blinkova; in Fed Cup, where she surprisingly lost a reverse singles rubber to 17-year-old world no. 185 Leylah Annie Fernandez; and in St Petersburg, where she is a former finalist, losing her way after winning the first set against Maria Sakkari in the quarterfinals.
A temperamental type, Bencic can blow hot and cold where her results are concerned, but it’s not a ton of success in the first six weeks of 2020 to build on coming into her title defense in Dubai. Now does she have the easiest path; she could face Kontaveit, her Melbourne nemesis, in the second round, and that’s if she can get past Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the first.
Pavlyuchenkova will be making her tenth appearance in Dubai, and it’s safe to say that she doesn’t have the best record there. She is 6-9 overall and last won a match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships in 2011, since which time she is on a seven-match losing streak, getting just two games against Caroline Garcia last year.
The powerful Russian last ranked inside the top 20 at the beginning of 2018 and comes into Dubai ranked world no. 31 despite reaching two Premier-level finals – in Osaka, losing to Osaka, and in Moscow, losing to Bencic – and a Grand Slam quarterfinal at the Australian Open in 2019. After going 1-2 in Brisbane and Adelaide to start 2020, Pavlyuchenkova made the sixth Grand Slam quarterfinal of her career in Melbourne, reaching the last eight for the third time in the past four years when she beat second seed Pliskova and former champion Angelique Kerber. But for the sixth time, she failed to go beyond the quarterfinals, suffering a 5-7, 3-6 defeat to Garbine Muguruza.
Pavlyuchenkova is returning to the courts for the first time since Melbourne this week, and it will be interesting to see if she gets any kind of performance bump from her team-up with Sam Sumyk, formerly the coach of Muguruza among many others. Certainly Pavlyuchenkova has had little success against Bencic in the past; she trails 1-4 in the overall head-to-head, and lost to Bencic twice in 2019 alone (at Wimbledon and in the final of the Kremlin Cup).
Pavlyuchenkova did win the only previous match she and Bencic have played on outdoor hard courts, in Washington, D.C. in 2015; slower conditions should suit the Russian, whose explosive hitting off the ground is her strength while movement is her weakness (the opposite is the case for Bencic of course). But her poor record in Dubai is not encouraging, not even given how unimpressive Bencic has looked in some matches of late. I think Pavlyuchenkova should take a set, but Bencic will nevertheless scrape through to the second round.