DUBAI: Sorana Cirstea was the first player to reach the second round of the Dubai Tennis Championships on Monday when she defeated Sloane Stephens 5-7 6-3 6-2.
Stephens, who sensationally beat Serena Williams at the Australian Open last month, held the upper hand through much of the first set but struggled to close it out.
After being unable to convert three earlier break points the American teenager finally broke to lead 5-4, but she then failed to serve out the set after leading 40-0. Then, even though at 5-5 she broke Cirstea again, Stephens had to fight off two break points to win the set.
Gaining confidence from her lead, Stephens then broke Cirstea’s serve in the opening game of the second set. But she was unable to maintain her advantage as Cirstea broke back to level at 3-3 and then again for 5-3 before taking the set on her third set point.
In the final set, Stephens again failed to make the most of her chances as Cirstea fought off two break points to hold for 1-1 and then broke to lead 2-1. And although the Romanian double-faulted to allow Stephens to level at 2-2, she then swept the next four games to claim victory.
The top four seeds have a bye into the second round of an event that features eight of the world’s top 10 players. In addition to Williams, the Wimbledon, US Open and Olympic champion, the tournament features Australian Open and Doha winner Victoria Azarenka, 2011 Dubai champion Caroline Wozniacki, defending champion Agnieszka Radwanska, 2011 US Open champion Samantha Stosur, 2011 Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova, Italian number one Sara Errani and top German Angelique Kerber.
Meanwhile, Victoria Azarenka revels in her rivalry with Serena Williams which could see her recapture the world number one ranking from the 15-times Grand Slam winner at the Dubai Tennis Championships.
The Belarussian scored a rare victory on Monday over the American, who nevertheless took away her world number one ranking 24 hours later, a rather contradictory setback for Azarenka, which has not prevented her celebrating their relationship on and off court.
“Any tournament I’m happy to play against Serena,” said Azarenka, who is still the only leading player to remain unbeaten this year after her 7-6 (8/6), 2-6, 6-3 win over Williams in the Qatar Open final.
“I feel like we’re pushing each other to go to the limit every time, to step up, to improve, and that’s tremendous motivation to have.”
Azarenka has further motivation that she can regain the top spot if she wins the title here. She can even do so if she only reaches the final, provided Williams does not.