World no. 3 Karolina Pliskova takes on Elena Rybakina, one of the most in-form players of 2020, in the quarterfinals of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Thursday.
Pliskova vs Rybakina is live from Dubai on Thursday 20 February at 2pm local/10am GMT
Belinda Bencic, Sofia Kenin and Elina Svitolina have all gone out of the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships already, but there are a number of top players remaining in the draw as an intriguing slate of quarterfinals shapes up.
This is perhaps the most interesting, with second seed and former finalist Pliskova coming up against rising Kazakh Rybakina, who leads the WTA Tour in matches won in 2020.
Runner-up to Halep in Dubai in 2015, Pliskova has lost her last two quarterfinals at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, but the world no. 3 is looking in fine form so far at this year’s event. While the Czech failed, once again, to make inroads in her quest to become a Grand Slam champion in 2019, she did pick up a quartet of titles – all Premier-level or higher – and there are some indications that 2020 could be shaping up the same way. Pliskova came through a strong field at the Brisbane International to defend her title there in the first week of the season, defeating Madison Keys, and was on a six-match winning streak before being beaten by Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in two tie-break sets in the third round of the Australian Open.
It was an agonizing defeat, but at least afforded Pliskova the chance to take a fairly lengthy break early in the season – and she certainly looked well-rested when she ripped through Kristina Mladenovic 6-1, 6-2 on Wednesday to start her Dubai campaign at last, taking just 68 minutes to beat the Frenchwoman and only losing four points on her first serve in the process. Mladenovic, a qualifier in Dubai, might have been expected to enjoy the advantage of being better attuned to the conditions, but Pliskova looked extremely at home, saying afterwards:
‘It was quite a solid first round. I think the score little bit is easier than it really was. I think we had couple tough games.
‘But overall I think I had it pretty much all the match under my control. Even though she played some great shots, some good serves, I think I was in charge of most of the games. I like these conditions. I like to play in the sun. It’s a little bit faster, which is better.’
Pliskova beat Mladenovic in straight sets in Melbourne as well and clearly feels comfortable against the Frenchwoman at the moment, although she will want to land more than 50% of her first serves going forward.
In contrast to the 68 minutes Pliskova has spent on court in the first two rounds, Elena Rybakina has had to work much harder as well as having played a lot more matches overall – 20 in 2020 to Pliskova’s eight.
Part of that, of course, is because Rybakina has been winning – a lot. The Kazakh in fact leads the WTA Tour in match wins for 2020, having won 17 of the 20 she has played so far this year; she has made the final at three of the five events she has played, starting with back-to-back finals in Shenzhen (losing to Ekaterina Alexandrova) and Hobart (beating Zhang Shuai) to start the season.
A third-round defeat to Ash Barty at the Australian Open did not knock Rybakina too badly – she moved on to the indoors Premier-level St Petersburg Ladies Trophy, the tournament which saw her initial breakthrough in 2017 and, this year, saw her beat Katerina Siniakova, Fiona Ferro, Oceane Dodin and Maria Sakkari to reach the biggest final of her career so far.
Denied by Kiki Bertens in that final, Rybakina had to make a quick turnaround to the very different conditions in Dubai, but you wouldn’t know it from her progress so far. The Kazakh made her debut at the Aviation Club in stunning style, getting the third top-10 win of her career over Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin 6-7(2), 6-2, 6-3 in the first round, before backing it up by beating Siniakova (for the second time in two weeks) 6-3, 6-3.
Rybakina is in the best kind of form right now – she’s full of confidence and has absolutely nothing to lose, and is just going out there and finding out what she can do. It’s proving a deadly combination for many of her opponents, but she shouldn’t be able to bully Pliskova back behind the baseline in the way she has been doing to others. Pliskova will need to deliver an aggressive and accurate performance, serving big and imposing herself on Rybakina rather than letting the Kazakh dictate, but this should be well within her capabilities. I can envisage Rybakina taking a set, but Pliskova should come through to the semifinals in Dubai once more.