Hsieh Su-wei put her injury issues to rest to close the year on a high as she ended Natalia Vikhlyantseva’s run to win the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge.
The former world top-25 ranked Hsieh needed all of 59 minutes to dispatch her 19-year-old opponent 6-2, 6-2 to claim the ITF $100,000 (Dh367,000) title at Habtoor Grand Resort on Saturday.
It was a night-and-day difference for the Chinese Taipei player from her semi-final clash, in which she was pushed to the brink by Germany’s Mona Barthel before rallying back from a 5-2 second-set hole to advance.
That served as a turning point, with Hsieh dropping just five games in total over her final three sets of the tournament as she came out of the gates in the final on top of her game.
“First few games I was trying to focus on the court and get into the match quick, because I know if I don’t get in quick, she’s (Vikhlyantseva) going to hit all her shots and then it’s going to be really difficult to get into the match,” Hsieh told Sport360.
“So it was a very good start for me.”
Injuries cost Hsieh most of her 2016 season and while ankle woes pegged her at less than her best coming into Dubai, she felt both her confidence and movement return after the first two matches.
“I didn’t play a match for six months,” Hsieh said. “Before I came here, my ankle was still a problem and I couldn’t practice properly. I can only stand on the court to practice, not moving at all. I knew it was going to be a difficult situation, so I knew I need to play some matches to get into the Australian Open.
“I just wanted to come and play as many matches as I can and I won the tournament. You never know what’s going to happen.”
For Vikhlyantseva, the lopsided loss didn’t do justice to how strongly the Russian teen ended the year. She has climbed the rankings from No280 in mid-April to No148 currently, boosted by her defeat of Donna Vekic to win the ITF $100,000 tournament in Saint Petersburg in September.
“I tried to show my best and I think at the end of this year I found my best game,” Vikhlyantseva said.
“I’m trying to improve and it’s much better and it’s getting better for Australia next year. I hope to be in the top 100 next year. Maybe this week was the best week of 2016.”
Later in the day, Hsieh’s dreams of a coveted double were thwarted by Russian duo Natela Dzalamidze and Veronika Kudermetova.
The pair toppled the 2013 Wimbledon and 2014 French Open doubles champion Hsieh and partner Valeria Savinykh 6-3, 3-6, 10-4 to take the crown. Dzalamidze and Kudermetova were propelled by their service game, which accounted for six aces and 72.5 per cent first serve points won.
Top seed and last year’s champion Cagla Buyukakcay was amongst a slew of high-profile casualties at the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge on Tuesdat, as seven of the eight tournament seeds crashed out in round one.
The Turkish world No77, who made history last April when she won her first WTA title on home soil in Istanbul, fell 6-0, 7-6 (1) to unranked Russian Ksenia Pervak, who was playing just her second professional match since August 2015.
Buyukakcay, the first Turkish woman to win a WTA title, admitted rust was a factor in her defeat but is adamant it won’t dampen her big plans for 2017.
“Of course it’s tough to play the first match after preseason training, I was feeling a bit weird on court, I hadn’t played for two months and to get the rhythm on court again, you need matches and that’s why I’m here,” Buyukakcay told Sport360.
“I was excited to play in the morning but everything didn’t go well for me. We were playing some points in the last couple of days but it’s not the same feeling when you’re in the match so I was struggling to get into the rhythm again, to keep the ball in…
“I have to give credit to my opponent. She’s a great player, she used to be in the top-40 in the world, she keeps the ball always inside the court so I knew it and I knew I had to play longer rallies and stuff but I wasn’t very ready today. I made a lot of mistakes, that’s why I’m disappointed.
“But the year is just starting so it won’t put me down. I learnt a lot from today.”
Pervak is best known for winning the Australian Open junior title as a 17-year-old back in 2009 before storming into the world’s top-40 in 2011, thanks to a run to the Wimbledon fourth round and a WTA title triumph in Tashkent a couple of months later.
The 25-year-old announced her retirement from the sport in August 2015 but returned to action three months ago and her upset win over Buyukakcay will no doubt give her confidence in her comeback.
Buyukakcay doesn’t think being the defending champion affected her greatly but concedes that she relishes the role of the underdog far more than that of the favourite.
“Of course it’s part of the game (trying to defend your title). But also I realised that when I’m not a favourite in the tournament it works better for me.
“Since I got here, of course everybody is excited to see me around, I’m excited to see people and I have very good memories from last year but I was trying to focus on the first match because I thought it would be too difficult for me after preseason training, so I was ready for that. I don’t think it affected me.”
Buyukakcay’s 2016 was a breakthrough year for her not just because she won her maiden WTA crown but she also qualified to her first major and made the second round at Roland Garros and the US Open and hit a career-high ranking of 60 in the world.
She has higher hopes for 2017.
“Of course it was a great year for me, I think everything started for me here , I had the perfect end to the season last year (in Dubai), and after that everything got better and better for me in 2016,” said the 25-year-old.
“So now I have a challenge to defend my points, to go to compete at the highest level and to be in the main draw of grand slams but that’s why we play.
“I’m very excited first of all and I want to reach my career-high ranking again.”
Buyukakcay will officially kick off her 2017 season in Shenzhen, followed by Hobart then the Australian Open.
Swiss qualifier Patty Schnyder, who at 37, is launching a comeback to the sport she left in 2011, lost her first round on Tuesday to Austrian Barbara Haas 3-6, 6-3, 7-5.
No2 seed Kristina Kucova, No3 seed Evgeniya Rodina, Mandy Minella (No4), Rebecca Sramkova (No6), Aryna Sabalenka (No7) and Cindy Burger (No8) all followed Buyukakcay out of the first round.
Taipei’s No5 seed Hsieh Su-Wei was the sole seeded survivor as she eased past Viktoriya Tomova 6-3, 6-3.
The switch from clay to hard court proved trickier than anticipated for Omani wildcard Fatma Al Nabhani who lost 6-0, 6-0 to Dutch qualifier to Quirine Lemoine.
Former world No7 Patty Schnyder flew under the rader and into the main draw of the Al Habtoor Tennis Challenge after claiming a third victory in qualifying on Monday in Dubai.
The 37-year-old Swiss has launched an astonishing comeback to tennis last season, after initially hanging up her racquet mid-2011.
Schnyder, who won 11 WTA titles between 1996 and 2008 and reached the semi-finals of the 2004 Australian Open, is in unfamiliar territory, having to fight her way through qualifying rounds on the ITF circuit – a stark contrast to her days when she was regularly making the second week at the majors.
The Basel-born veteran lefty beat 23-year-old Hungarian Agnes Bukta yesterday at the $100k tournament at the Habtoor Grand hotel 2-6, 6-4, 2-6 to qualify for the main draw. Schnyder returned to the pro circuit in July 2015 and has since won two $10k ITF titles. She is up to No298 in the rankings.
She retired from tennis five years ago due to frustration and burn-out and decided to come back because she found herself enjoying the matches she was playing in the Swiss league and was craving competition.
Schynder opens her main draw campaign on Tuesday against 20-year-old Austria Barbara Haas.
Also in action on Tuesday is Omani wildcard Fatma Al Nabhani, who is hoping to finish her season on a high, having been given the chance to compete at a $100k-level tournament.
“I’m happy that I got the opportunity to play in the main draw and thank you to Mr Khalaf Al Habtoor and the organisation for this opportunity,” the 25-year-old Al Nabhani told Sport360.
“Of course it’s something big, it’s a $100k+H (hospitality) so I’m happy to playing it.”
Al Nabhani, the first professional female tennis player to emerge from the Gulf region, is currently ranked 447 in the world and is coming off a decent stretch of results, having made two $10k finals in Morocco as well as taking the singles and team titles at the Arab Championship.
“My season wasn’t as good as last year but I got some good results in the end of the year, especially in Morocco,” she said.
“Winning the Arab team event was the big surprise, I never saw it coming. I’m really proud that we won the team title because it’s the first time a GCC country wins it at the Arab Championship, especially that we beat Morocco and Tunisia, so that was huge. So things have picked up towards the end of the year.”
Al Nabhani opens her campaign against Dutch world No202 Quirine Lemoine.
“I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s match, I played her in a final in Bahrain and I lost a close one in the final set. It’s my first tournament on hard court after playing on clay for a month, so hopefully it goes well,” said Al Nabhani.
This is the 19th edition of the Habtoor Tennis Challenge. It was upgraded from a $75k to $100k+H this year.
Court 1 (10:00 start)
Sabina Sharipova (UZB) v Jana Fett (CRO)
Fatma Al Nabhani (OMA) v Quirine Lemoine (NED)
Not Before 12:30
Ivana Jorovic (SRB) v Anastasiya Vasylyeva (UKR)
Nina Stojanovic (SRB) v Elitsa Kostova (BUL)
Court 2 (10:00 start)
Lesley Kerkhove (NED) v Viktoria Kamenskaya (RUS)
Viktoriya Tomova (BUL) v Su-Wei HSIEH (TPE x5)
Not Before 12:30
Rebecca Sramkova (SVK x6) v Tadeja MAJERIC (SLO)
Aryna Sabalenka (BLR x7) v Dalma Galfi (HUN)
Court 3 (10:00 start)
Cagla Buyukakcay (TUR x1) v Ksenia Pervak (RUS)
Nigina Abduraimova (UZB) v Mandy Minella (LUX x4)
Not Before 15:00
Evgeniya Rodina (RUS x3) v Mona Barthel (GER)
Barbara Haas (AUT) v Patty Schnyder (SUI)