TOKYO, (Reuters) – World number one Dinara Safina collapsed to a stunning 7-6 4-6 7-5 defeat by Taiwanese qualifier Chang Kai-chen at the Pan Pacific Open yesterday.
Second seed Venus Williams also lost her opening match, toppled 7-6 7-5 by Russian Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in front of an empty Tokyo centre court way past midnight local time.
Safina, dumped out of the U.S. Open in the third round this month, struggled from the start against a player 131 places below her in the world rankings.
“It’s not an easy moment,” the Russian told reporters after surrendering her Tokyo title. “I had a lot of chances in the third set but I just let it go.”
“I didn’t play the way I should. I never took her out of her comfort zone,” added Safina, who had sat sobbing on the steps of the players’ lounge after her latest setback.
“I didn’t do much to help myself.”
French Open champion Svetlana Kuznetsova followed her compatriot out of the tournament. The fifth seed was upset 7-5 4-6 6-3 by Germany’s Andrea Petkovic, also a qualifier.
Former Tokyo winner Maria Sharapova restored pride for Russia and cheered the event sponsors with a battling 4-6 7-5 6-1 win over Italy’s Francesca Schiavone.
However, Pavlyuchenkova’s late-night ambushing of American Williams dealt a further blow to the prestige of the lucrative $2 million tournament.
Safina’s top ranking has been a source of contention following her failure to win a maiden grand slam in 2009.
A holiday from tennis after her New York flop did not look to have helped the Russian, who made a poor start in Tokyo by losing the first set tiebreak 7-5.
The Pan Pacific title holder, like Williams given a first-round bye, rallied to take the second set with a thumping backhand, pumping her fist and screeching “Come on!”
But after seizing an early break in the decider, Safina’s nervousness resurfaced as she tamely surrendered her serve with a double-fault at 5-4 up.
While Safina yelled at herself in Russian, the 18-year-old Chang kept her cool, completing the biggest win of her career by forcing Safina into wild forehand on her third match point.
“I never came into the match thinking I was going to lose badly,” said Chang after winning a marathon match in two hours and 44 minutes. “I just wanted to play tough.”
Former world number one Sharapova improved as her first-round match progressed, storming through the final set before closing out with a blistering forehand down the line.