The second round of the Qatar Total Open will feature two of the most in-form players of 2021 facing off for a spot in the quarterfinals. No. 3 seed Aryna Sabalenka is 18-2 since Roland Garros—a record that includes a 15-match winning streak and three straight titles—and yet oddsmakers have her at just a slight -120 favorite against former world No. 1 Garbiñe Muguruza's -105 after the Spaniard eased past Veronika Kudermetova in her first round.
“I think she's playing great,” Muguruza said in her post-match press conference. “Last year and this year I saw she's winning titles and playing good tennis. I'm excited to face these top players.”
Muguruza began the new season similarly emphatic fashion when she roared into the Yarra Valley Classic final with wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, former Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin, and 2019 French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova. Carrying that momentum into Melbourne proper, she lost just 10 games to reach the second week before taking a narrow loss to eventual champion Naomi Osaka—having held two match points in the third set.
The two-time Grand Slam champion is getting coached from afar this week after Conchita Martinez tested positive for COVID-19 upon her arrival in Doha, but is arguably closer than ever as the 1994 Wimbledon winner is literally in Muguruza’s ear during the practices she’s filmed on her phone.
Still, the 2018 Doha runner-up can afford no deficits against the defending champion, who won their only previous meeting at the China Open that same year. Sabalenka has been an all-but-unstoppable force in both singles and doubles since last fall—moving up to a career-high of No. 7 in January—and her decision to focus all her energy into the former should make her competition all the more nervous.
Fresh off a second major title alongside Elise Mertens, the Belarusian continued to make strides at the Grand Slams in singles, reaching the fourth round for the second time in her career in Melbourne. Once there, she pushed 23-time major champion Serena Williams to three grueling to take just her second loss since September.
Sabalenka is a proven commodity on Doha’s courts, sweeping aside fellow big-hitter Petra Kvitova to win the first of her three 2020 titles.
“I came here for some great matches, for the great fight,” she explained ahead of the tournament. “I'm defending champion but still I feel there is nothing to lose, and I'll just go for it and do everything I can. It's not a big difference compared to last year.”
In a match that will likely be decided by first-strike tennis, much will depend on the serve. Against Kudermetova, Muguruza posted solid numbers, averaging 63% off her first serve and winning just over two-thirds of those—shy of the 70-80% she manages at her dominant best.
Sabalenka takes big swings off both deliveries, and will assuredly aim to pressure Muguruza’s softer second serve; if the 16 break points she engineered in their last encounter are any indication, the world No. 8 will have plenty of opportunities.
The Pick: Aryna Sabalenka