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Sabalenka falls to old foe Vekic in Dubai second round

Donna Vekic Donna Vekic - The Canadian Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Aryna Sabalenka lost her first match since successfully defending her Australian Open title when she was overhauled by an old foe at the Dubai Championships on Tuesday.

The No. 2-ranked Sabalenka blew a set and 2-0 lead as Donna Vekic of Croatia rallied to win 6-7 (5), 6-3, 6-0 in the second round.

No. 1 Iga Swiatek lost her serve three times in the first set before coming right and beating Sloane Stephens 6-4, 6-4. Coco Gauff, the No. 3, accounted for Elisabetta Cocciaretto of Italy 6-1, 7-5. No. 4 Elena Rybakina avoided an upset when Victoria Azarenka retired in distress. Azarenka won the first set 6-4 but lost the second 6-2 in increasing pain.

Sabalenka and Vekic go back eight years on the tour, and Vekic dominated the early matchups. But Sabalenka made the Grand Slam breakthrough when she beat Vekic in the Australian quarterfinals a year ago en route to her first major title.

Vekic referenced Sabalenka winning “the big one” of their career matchups on Tuesday but her sixth win in their eight contests wasn't too shabby either.

Sabalenka led 5-3 before settling the first set in a tiebreaker. Sabalenka, coming off a three-week layoff after her Melbourne triumph, then led 2-0 with a point for 3-0.

“I was on the beach already,” Vekic admitted, but a sliced backhand passing winner that Sabalenka let go saved the game and launched her comeback.

“I won the first set. I was up with break. I didn't feel like I was up,” Sabalenka said. “The level of play was so bad today from me. I feel like the conditions here don't fit me well at all."

Staying aggressive but with improving accuracy, Vekic won the next three games, broke for 5-3 and served out to level the set score after nearly two hours.

Sabalenka, forced to her first three-set game of the year, showed more second serves and exasperation, and Vekic was merciless. A sixth double fault by Sabalenka put her 3-0 down in the third and two more double faults dropped her 5-0 behind. Moments later, Vekic won a ninth straight game and wrapped up her first win over a top-two player since 2019.

Also, Wimbledon champion and No. 7 seed Marketa Vondrousova defeated Peyton Stearns 6-1, 5-7, 6-2 for the third time in eight months.

No. 6 Zheng Qinwen, No. 8 Maria Sakkari and former champions Jelena Ostapenko and Elina Svitolina also advanced to the last 16. Svitolina has Swiatek next. Svitolina won their last meeting in the Wimbledon quarterfinals.

“She's going to be motivated to beat me this time,” Svitolina said. “But I love to play these matches.”


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