Karolina Pliskova showed the steel of a World No 1 as she fought off a match point to claim a riveting 3-6 7-5 6-4 comeback win over Zhang Shuai in the US Open third round on Saturday.
The currently occupying top spot, Pliskova, who has a pack snapping at her heels to take it over, needs to get back into the final to remain at the summit of the WTA rankings, but she got off to a slow start on Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Day 6 of US Open is the turning point towards the sharp end of the tournament and her opponent, the 27th seed Zhang Shuai of China is a force to contend with at the best of times.
I will have to improve in the next one, Karolina Pliskova
The tall Czech never gives anything away in her demeanour, regardless of what is happening on the court and, in this first match of the day, she was no different as she let the opening set slip away in 34 minutes.
Credit to Zhang, who played aggressively from the outset and had the No 1 seed on the back foot for the most part.
Last year’s runner-up grabbed at a 3-0 lead in the second, only to be pegged back and, at 4-all, she drove a ball wide to offer up her own precious serve to give the Chinese a chance to serve for the match.
Zhang watched a Pliskova backhand clip the sideline that could well have been out but did not challenge. It may well have cost her the match.
She went up 30-15 but the Czech drove into the corners and earned herself a break back point, only to net the ball, one of a string errors that plagued her game.
When Zhang got her first match point, it was the nervous Chinese who feebly netted a forehand and, efectively, lost her chance for the match as Pliskova broke back for 5-all.
The nerves Zhang had been clearly feeling dissipated and she struck the ball freely again, gaining a break point after the Czech drove wide.
She herself drove wide but had a third break point opportunity following the longest rally of the match, which ended with Pliskova driving long.
An un-returnable first serve saved it and after two errors from Zhang, Pliskova moved ahead 6-5.
As Zhang tried to level, she was a shadow of her former self and a couple of errors and a double fault for 15-40 offered up two set points, but Pliskova only needed the one to level the match at set all.
The Czech called the trainer in the break for treatment on her right forearm, and giving Zhang a time to reflect on how she had dominated the first set.
The stats showed how even they were – both had 20 unforced errors against 25 winners, although Pliskova’s first service percentage was improving despite the problems with her arm.
Nevertheless, she went down 0-40 on her opening serve, but clawed it back, only to be broken after a fine lob and a winning smash by the Chinese.
Playing with more aggression again, Zhang moved the tall Czech from side to side, paying dividends, but a nervy smash hit long gave Pliskova a break point, which the Chinese saved with a fine pass at the net, and several deuces later, she managed to hold for 2-0.
With a rare show of emotion, Pliskova held to 30 to stay in touch, and then won the next two games to go up 3-2.
Zhang saved a break point with a tricky smash, and doggedly held to level after just over two hours of play.
After Pliskova held, Zhang responded convincingly to level again at 4 games all.
Despite Zhang’s remarkable defence, the Czech held her serve again to love, finally with a chance to close out the match.
Zhang’s nerves re-appeared as she drove a volley into the net to bring up Pliskova’s first match point, which the Czech converted with a backhand drive, a loud scream and a smile, winning through 3-6 7-5 6-4 in 2 hours, 20 minutes.
“Not playing many forehands down the line so it is my last try [on match point in the second set],” Pliskova said. “[only 3 forehands in the set] I just went for it!
“I will have to improve in the next one,” the 25-year-old added.
“[I have] a little problem with my arm. Hopefully, it’s nothing serious and I’ll be ready for my next match.
“I don’t really feel calm. I tell myself – stay calm and don’t panic…so far I am winning, so that is good.”
The runner-up last year, Pliskova, and will have to win the title if the 3rd seed Garbine Muguruza gets to the semi-finals and loses, but if the Spaniard reaches the final, the Czech will have no chance to remain No 1 after the US Open.
Pliskova will next face either American Jen Brady or Romania’s Monica Niculescu.
Safarova’s singles run
Out on Court 5, defending doubles champion and doubles World No 1 Lucie Safarova extended her singles run at the US Open.
The 30-year-old Czech left-hander moved into the singles round of 16 for just the second time in her career at Flushing Meadows on Saturday, defeating Japan’s Kurumi Nara, 6-3 6-2.
After needing three sets to win each of her first two matches, including a first round upset of No 26 Anett Kontaveit, Safarova was brilliant off the court for the entirety of the 69-minute encounter, stroking 34 winners to Nara’s 9 in 17 games, and breaking serve a total of 5 times.
She never trailed in the match, though she surrendered serve for the first time while holding a 4-0 lead in the second set, only to rebound and pocket the last two games of the match to move safely through to the second week.
Although she is unseeded in singles, coming in at a ranking of world No 37, Safarova has a Top 10 pedigree.
The Czech reached a career-high ranking of No 5 in the autumn of 2015, thanks in part to finishing runner-up to Serena Williams at Roland Garros, but was derailed by injuries and illness, including being hospitalied for a bacterial infection.
After getting back on track on the doubles court, winning three straight Grand Slams alongside Bethanie Mattek-Sands beginning in Flushing Meadows last year, Safarova’s summer was stopped only by the in-form Sloane Stephens, who saved match points to defeat the Czech in the quarter-finals in Toronto, and won the rematch in the first round of Cincinnati during the US Open Series.
Safarova next plays the winner of Agnieszka Rawanska and CoCo Vandeweghe.