All eyes were on Kim Clijsters on Thursday at the BNP Paribas Open, as the two-time Indian Wells champion was making her first appearance at the tournament since 2011. Late at night, American Alison Riske pleased the home crowed with a first-round win over qualifier Liang En-Shuo.
Katerina Siniakova d. Kim Clijsters 6-1 2-6 6-2
The third match on center court, a hopeful crowd was supporting the Tennis Hall Of Fame inductee, Kim Clijsters. Her second comeback post maternity leave has understandably proven to be more tricky. While the Belgian veteran retains her core skills and weapons, her movement and fitness have room to improve. Clijsters states that Andy Murray, father of four, inspired her to make another go at the tour.
Her first-round opponent at Indian Wells, Katerina Siniakova is also an accurate ball striker and Olympic gold medalist in doubles, with partner Barbara Krejcikova. Going into this match, there were questions of whether the Czech would maintain a positive headspace without her partner if she fell behind. Clijsters has yet to reach peak fitness, but her mental strength and ball striking skills are still sweet spots. Clijsters was injured recently in Chicago, so the state of that injury is also in question.
Clijsters began with a few wobbles, giving Siniakova a quick break going down 0-1. The world No.53 Siniakova followed with a hold and another break after some long points, pushing the veteran to deuce points and then finishing them decisively to go up 3-0. As Siniakova held to 4-0, things seemed bleak for Clijsters, but she dug in defending at deuce to hold, 4-1. Avoiding the bagel mattered, but in the first set it was a little too late as Siniakova won in ~35 minutes.
The questions loomed, can Clijsters step up? And can Siniakova stay positive and close without the yips? Clijsters quickly sent the message I am not giving up, a turning point. She struck in the long game-one for the break, playing seven deuce points. She showed power and smart placement, while Siniakova began some negative self-chatter, 1-0 Clijsters.
The Belgian followed with a quick hold and the center court came alive. Siniakova was dropping her level, in part due to her opponent’s pressure, and the scoreline went the way of the former world No.1 to 4-0.
A clearly unhappy Siniakova held her ground to 4-1, then 4-2. But it was too little too late for her this time. Clijsters found success on her third set point to finish, 6-2. Game one was a clear turning point, but could Clijsters maintain her momentum?
Siniakova needed to collect herself. Clijsters was playing at a higher level and had the edge of experience and superior grip on composure.
The two exchanged holds to 1-1. The Czech struck first and tonight Clijsters did not have the goods to reel the match back in. Siniakova went up 4-1, despite longer points and deep shots from her opponent. Clijsters held to 4-2 and flashed a fist pump to the crowd who stayed with her, “let’s go Kim.”
Now 4-2, game seven was critical. Clijsters pressed Siniakova to deuce and a double-fault, but the Czech held and followed with the break on an error from Clijsters, 6-2.
Next up for Siniakova is another tour veteran, Angelique Kerber. Kerber has a substantial hard court resume and has the legs to run down everything. This match may prove a tall order for Siniakova. Composure for both will be key.
Alison Riske d. Liang En-Shuo 6-2 6-2
Following the night match of Frances Tiafoe and Benoit Paire, American Alison Riske took the court against qualifier, Liang En-Shuo. The world No.51 Riske has struggled of late, so this match could have gotten away from her.
Riske remained focused and energized, taking the first set of the first-round match 6-2. The world No.224 Liang failed to hold with errors and likely nerves mounting as this was her first time playing on the big stage. Liang was getting her serves in, but not winning those points, a sure sign of trouble. Her return points percentage was also low, 28%, compared with 70% for Riske.
The Taiwan-born player was making strides on deep shots and improving her service games, but tonight would be learning opportunity for the 21-year old. Riske took a 2-0 lead, then the qualifier fought her way back to 2-2. From then on Riske took control, closing at 6-2. Remember that Liang already won two matches to arrive in the main draw. So she can take experience and positives into her next event.
2019 BNP Paribas Open Champion, Bianca Andreescu, is Riske’s next opponent. Assuming Bianca is intact physically, this match will be a challenge for the American. The Canadian stumbled on the late night at the US Open against, Maria Sakkari but she was also hobbled. Assuming Andreescu has recovered, I expect a full on battle.
Coco Gauff & Leylah Fernandez win in doubles
A packed house showed to Court 8 for the doubles match of Coco Gauff [USA] & Leyla Fernandez [CAN] vs. Irina Begu [ROM] & Renata Voracova [Czech]. The North American duo was dominant, controlling points in every court zone. Fernandez closed with a winner, 6-1 6-1.
Their next opponents are fifth seeds Nichole Melichar-Martinez & Demi Schuurs.
More Thursday’s results:
Caroline Garcia vs. Kirsten Flipkens 5-7 6-4 6-0. Next for Garcia is Coco Gauff.
Viktorija Golubic d. Marketa Vondrousova 1-6 6-4 6-3. Next for Golubic is Maria Sakkari.
And drum roll! Tomorrow the Queens of New York debut: Emma Raducanu & Leyla Fernandez.