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By Matt Smith
DUBAI, Feb 19 (Reuters) - Former French Open champion Ana Ivanovic beat Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-3 7-6 in the first round of the Dubai tennis championships on Monday while U.S. teenager Sloane Stephens was eliminated in three sets to cap a miserable debut trip to the Gulf.
Ivanovic's career has dipped since she won the French title in 2008, sinking from number one in the world rankings to 13th, and she was far from flawless on the floodlit Dubai court.
The Serb slipped from 4-0 up in the second set to 6-6 as her first serve percentage plunged, before winning the subsequent tiebreak 7-5.
She was still too strong for 21-year-old Pavlyuchenkova, breaking in the first game and remaining largely in control thereafter, with her Russian opponent's forehand too often found wanting to really put her higher-ranked adversary in trouble.
"I really want to, you know, break into the top 10 again," Ivanovic said. "I feel I have the game, but I just haven't been consistent enough, especially against the top players."
Ivanovic broke for a second time to go 4-1 up in the first set, a fierce cross-court return earning a break point she converted after Pavlyuchenkova thumped a forehand into the net.
Yet Ivanovic immediately lost her own serve to love as the world number 29 closed to 4-3 but the 25-year-old roused herself again, dropping only two points in the next two games as Pavlyuchenkova double-faulted to gift her the first set.
The Serb blamed her second set slump on a troubled shoulder.
"I have been struggling for weeks now," Ivanovic said. "I was kind of afraid to hit the ball because it was getting a bit sore, but I was just so happy to win in two (sets) so I can regenerate more and try to be ready for the next one."
STEPHENS STRUGGLES AGAIN
Stephens, who suffered a second-round exit in last week's Qatar Open, was beaten 5-7 6-3 6-2 by Romania's Sorana Cirstea and the world number 16 said she had found it tough going in her first trip to the Gulf.
"It's two tournaments in a place I have never been before, a very different situation for me," Stephens said. "Some days you're going to be on court and it's not just going to turn out the way you want. Today I didn't play my best tennis, and last week I didn't play my best tennis."
The 19-year-old, who defeated newly installed world number one Serena Williams on the way to reaching the semi-finals of the Australian Open in January, started confidently in front of a sparse Dubai crowd.
She broke in the first set to take a 5-4 lead, but then showed her inexperience, serving a double-fault on set point to allow Cirstea to make it 5-5. The world's top-ranked teenager immediately broke again as she went on to claim the first set.
Stephens then took a 3-1 second-set lead, winning nine points in a row, but Cirstea fought back by taking five straight games to square the match.
Cirstea won the last set in 33 minutes as the young American's serve collapsed, losing five of six service games.
Kazakhstan's Yulia Putintseva came out on top in an all-teenage battle, defeating Britain's Laura Robson 6-4 2-6 7-6.
Putintseva, 18, fought back after dropping her serve to winh the first set, before the British number two squared the match following another wayward backhand from the stocky Kazakh.
The final set lasted as long as the first two combined.
Putintseva bludgeoned her way to a double break and a 5-2 lead to allow her to serve for the match.
Robson, despondent, slumped in her chair, but her body language proved misleading as the 19-year-old reeled off the next two games to love, before breaking again to go 6-5 ahead.
Still, her Kazakh rival was uncowed, holding to love as the the world number 101 eventually prevailed in the tie-break.
"It just wasn't my day - I either went for too much or too little," a downbeat Robson told reporters afterwards, revealing she had been suffering from a chest infection all year.
Top seeds Williams and Victoria Azarenka, the world number one and two, are not due on court until Wednesday. Azarenka beat the 15-times Grand Slam winner in Sunday's Qatar Open final. (Editing by John Mehaffey)