The first day of the new WTA season started on a bright and hot Sunday in Brisbane, where temperatures soared so high up that the heat rule came into effect. The highest seed in action on Sunday, Karolina Pliskova, cruised through her first round match to win just her second-ever match at the Brisbane International, with her first being a win over Victoria Azarenka in 2015, in a thriller that saw her save a match point to defeat the two-time Australian Open champion. Things did not go as well for the only other seed in action on the first day though, as seventh seed Elena Vesnina wasted a big lead to start the 2017 season on a negative note, especially when she had a great chance to close out the match. WTA Rising Star Daria Kasatkina, who is making her debut here in Brisbane, also powered past through her first round opponent, alongside fellow debutant Shelby Rogers, the 2016 Roland Garros quarterfinalist who came through her opening match in three sets.
Along with the first main draw matches of the year, the matches in the final qualifying round were also played to decide the qualifiers for the first premier event of the season. After three days of exciting tennis which featured some hot prospects, the qualifiers were finally decided. The four qualifiers are Asia Muhammad, Aleksandra Krunic, Bethanie Mattek-Sands, and Destanee Aiava.
Final qualifying round played; Qualifiers decided
Asia Muhammad successfully qualified for the main draw after she defeated Kateryna Bondarenko in a match which had many momentum changes. Coming into the final qualifying round without losing a set, Muhammad was up against the top seed, who did not look like she was playing at her best all week. The 69th-ranked top seed in qualifying had to whisker through Rebecca Sramkova in three sets, coming through 8-6 in a final set tiebreak to decide the match. Her poor form was on show again as she lost the first set to the American 6-4, halfway from being on the receiving end of an upset. However, the Ukrainian gave the best reply possible by bagelling the 25-year-old, only conceding nine points in the whole set. The American did not let the momentum shift influence her though, as she cruised to the third set and the first qualifying spot in a three set match that lasted just a little over an hour and a half. This was an encouraging win for Muhammad, as it was her first top 100 win in over two years, and her best victory since defeating Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in 2014.
In terms of the rankings, all four matches in the final qualifying round were upsets as the lower-ranked players triumphed in all of the matches. Aleksandra Krunic, who has a career-high ranking of 62, defeated veteran and former Grand Slam champion Francesca Schiavone in exactly one hour, allowing her to only win three games. Schiavone’s serve disappointed her throughout the whole match, winning only seven second serve points in the whole match, and was broken a total of six times in the one-sided match.
In what was tipped as the tightest match of the final qualifying round, which could go anyone’s way, Bethanie Mattek-Sands triumphed in a three set match over Kateryna Kozlova to get into the main draw. The match did not disappoint as it was the only match in the final qualifying round to have gone over two and a half hours, with both players winning a total of 209 points. Mattek-Sands’ serve was clinical at the critical moments, as she managed to save 18 break points out of a possible 20, and hitting seven aces along the way. After splitting the first two sets, Mattek-Sands cruised through the final set, winning 79% of first serve points.
History-maker Destanee Aiava continued to make history as she became the first person born in the 2000s to be playing in the main draw of any WTA event, let alone a premier event. She already made history recently, winning the Australian Under-18s Championships to receive a wildcard for the main draw of the Australian Open, becoming the first person born in the 2000s to do so once again. Receiving yet another wildcard to the qualifying event of Brisbane, Aiava created an upset in the first round, defeating defending semifinalist Samantha Crawford, and gifting her a bagel in the process. She then defeated a veteran in Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, allowing her to just win two games in the process. In the final qualifying round, Aiava earned one of her best and biggest wins in her career, after she upset 86th ranked Carina Witthoeft, losing just two games once again. Witthoeft’s serve was very disappointing, hitting eight double faults in the match that lasted a little over an hour, and winning only 25% of her second service points.
The qualifiers were placed in the draw as such:
[Q] Aleksandra Krunic - [WC] Ashleigh Barty
[Q] Asia Muhammad - [WC] Donna Vekic
[Q] Destanee Aiava - [Q] Bethanie Mattek-Sands
Pliskova clinches perfect start to season
Karolina Pliskova faced off against Yulia Putintseva in their first match of 2017, and they entered the match with their head to head being at 1-0 in Putintseva’s favour. However, their only previous encounter occurred in 2012, with both players rising in the rankings and improving their games since then. Pliskova started the match the best way possible, breaking the former Russian’s serve in the first game of the match. Nevertheless, the 2016 Roland Garros quarterfinalist showed that it would potentially be a cracker as she broke back immediately to level the set and bring it back on serve. There was an exciting rally on game point in the fifth game, and Putintseva’s amazing defense and net play won her the game to hold her serve and keep the set on serve. Despite both players looking solid on their serves, the next break came soon after in the seventh game, where Pliskova finally broke serve to regain the lead.
Pliskova’s serve was solid as usual, and it played a major part for her to clinch the set as she broke Putintseva’s serve for the second consecutive game to win the set 6-3. With the momentum and the confidence in her after winning the first set, Pliskova jumped out to a 4-0 lead at the start of the second set within a blink of an eye, with Putintseva’s hopes slowly fading away. The 21-year-old came up with a break to love out of nowhere though, to get one of the breaks back and give her the slightest chance to make an improbable comeback. That break did not mean much though, as Pliskova broke back again to regain her double break lead and held her serve to win the match in a little over an hour. The Czech’s serve was on fire throughout the match, blasting 12 aces and hitting no double faults. She also won 92% of first service points during the whole match, but was slightly disappointing on her second serves as she only won four points on them throughout the match. This win allowed the 2016 US Open finalist to set her status as a strong contender for the Australian Open title, if she is in good form.
Rogers extends perfect record over Bouchard
Shelby Rogers has been one of the players that are able to trouble Eugenie Bouchard with their strong offensive games, and has beaten Bouchard twice in as many meetings previously. Rogers jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but a few unforced errors failed to help Rogers extend her lead as Bouchard managed to break to get her onto the scoreboard. Although Rogers threatened to break back immediately in the next game with some amazing returns, Bouchard held her serve in the match for the first time with an ace to give her a slight chance to win the set. The Canadian almost went back on serve, but narrowly missed a forehand down-the-line with Rogers at the net, with Hawkeye confirming the call.
Serving to stay in the set at 2-5, Bouchard gifted unforced errors and Rogers sealed the first set after 37 minutes. The former world number five went up a break early in the second set to give her a big chance to level the match at one set all. Bouchard did not let the lead escape though, and instead capitalised on the gain of momentum to earn a double break lead. Rogers was not able to handle Bouchard’s serve, which was on-point for most of the second set. A successful Hawkeye challenge on set point then allowed Bouchard to take the second set by the same scoreline, levelling the match at one-set-all to send the match into a deciding set. The final set started with a lengthy service game won by Rogers, with Bouchard unable to take her chances at decisive moments. After Bouchard held her serve to keep the final set on serve, her game crumbled as Rogers grew with confidence and started playing like she has nothing to lose. Rogers went on a run from then, winning five straight games to win the final set 6-1 in a match where all three sets were one-sided, and extend her head to head record with Bouchard to 3-0, with all three matches going the distance.
Cornet produces improbable comeback over Vesnina
Seventh seed Elena Vesnina went up against Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in her first match of 2017, with their head to head record 4-2 in Cornet’s favour. Vesnina looked like she was playing her best, when she was consistently hitting solid groundstrokes that were troubling Cornet, who was unable to go against them. Vesnina made the first breakthrough when she first broke Cornet on her first break point opportunity to take the lead in the set, where she took advantage of Cornet’s second serves, which was very vulnerable. Vesnina broke once more at the end of the set to clinch it 6-3, in a set where both players were very solid on their first serves. Both players failed to win more than 25% of first serve return points, showing how important the second serve return points are. Vesnina looked on course for a routine victory when she led by a set and a break, leading by the scoreline of 6-3, 4-1.
A very loose service game at 4-2 then saw Cornet break back out of nowhere, and bring the second set back on serve. Vesnina’s unforced errors continued to harm her as she was broken once again to gift the set to Cornet, losing five straight games. The final set was very tight, with not a single break of serve in the whole set. Cornet had three break point opportunities, but was unable to convert on any of them as Vesnina showed nerves of steel to hold her serve and keep the match on serve. Cornet threatened to break at 5-5, but was once again pegged back by Vesnina, who used her strong serves and solid groundstrokes to hold her serve. The tiebreak looked to be tight considering the reliance on service points, and the tiebreak went with serve from 2-1 all the way until the first match point opportunity of the match that went into Cornet’s favour. Serving to save match point, Vesnina crumbled to the pressure and lost the match in a little over two and a half hours.
The first match of the day was between American Christina McHale and Italian Sara Errani, with McHale being ranked in the top 25 in 2012, and Errani being ranked in the top five having been a finalist at Roland Garros.
McHale made the early breakthrough in the first set as she won three straight games to have an early advantage in the match after Errani held her serve to win the first game of the new WTA season (only main draw matches), and the former grand slam finalist even hit an ace in the opening game, despite just hitting two in the whole of 2016. McHale did not let the lead slip away throughout the set as Errani was unable to break service, making 22 unforced errors along the way to lose to set 6-3. Errani was notably trying to be aggressive throughout the match, and has improved her serve during the off-season. McHale once again got the break early in the second break to give herself a big chance to win her first match of 2017, but Errani broke back at 4-2 to bring the set back on serve and give her a chance of sending it into the distance. McHale broke once again to finally have the opportunity to serve for the match, which she successfully did in the next game. It was a disappointing loss for Errani considering the huge amount of unforced errors made by her, which was definitely not Errani-like. Whereas for McHale, it was an encouraging win which would spur her on for her second round match against Alize Cornet.
Makarova was not looking at her best throughout the match, starting the match with a 0-3 deficit. Doi was able to keep her lead all the way until 5-2, but Makarova created a small comeback to make it level at 5-5. The Russian was able to extend the set into a tiebreak, but her play faltered in the tiebreak as Doi took the lead early on and never looked back. The second set was much better as Makarova broke at 3-2 to give her the lead for the first time in the match. She looked like she was going to extend the match into a deciding set when she led 4-2 40-30, but her Doi stepped up her game and broke back to bring the match back on serve. Doi’s lethal groundstroks proved too much for Makarova once again as she broke the former 2 time grand slam semifinalist’s serve for the second consecutive time to have the opportunity to serve for the match. She did not disappoint her Japanese fans as she served out the match to love with Makarova not looking at her top form.
Another Russian in Daria Kasatkina had a totally different match though, with her groundstrokes looking lethal and herself looking fitter than ever. Kasatkina started the match on a positive note, breaking serve early on in the first set. Kasatkina did not let the lead slip away, and kept that advantage of a sole break all the way until the end of the first set, thus clinching the first set 6-3, and be a set away from a perfect start to the new year. Kasatkina was also lethal on her serves, losing only one single point on her first service in the first set. The young Russian soon went up a set and a break, but was pegged back by Begu immediately despite having a 40-0 lead while trying to consolidate the break. Begu then consolidated her break of serve to finally lead in the match for the first time. Kasatkina maintained her composure after going down 2-3, and won four straight games to win the match in a symmetrical scoreline, 6-3 6-3.
In doubles play, Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai powered past through Sara Errani and Elina Svitolina in straight sets, and Andreja Klepac, together with Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez, defeated the veteran team of Anna-Lena Groenefeld and Kveta Peschke.