LONDON, Great Britain - No.27 seed Ana Konjuh has powered into the fourth round of Wimbledon with a 7-6(3), 3-6, 6-4 win over No.8 seed Dominika Cibulkova in two hours and 37 minutes.
Though the 19-year-old made her aggressive intentions immediately clear with a brace of big returns to open the match, she was initially unable to bring her power to bear on the big points, committing unforced errors on her opportunities to break in the first and fourth games. Cibulkova, meanwhile, was moving through the gears easily, coming up with her trademark sharp angles and targeting the more erratic Konjuh forehand to leap out to a 5-1 lead.
At that point, the Croat had hit 13 unforced errors. But the youngest player left in the draw had already done intermittent damage with her backhand, particularly on return, and she didn't deviate from her attacking game plan - instead, she cleaned it up to draw level with a string of massive serves and accurate winners to break last year's quarterfinalist twice and draw level at 5-5. In this passage of play, Konjuh committed just one unforced error. The Slovak continued to battle, and even held two set points at 6-5 - but hit a wild second service return on the first, before Konjuh hammered down a 112mph serve on the second.
It was the No.27 seed who hit the heights in the ensuing tiebreak: the backhand was the defining shot of her match, responsible for 15 of the 26 winners she struck in the first set, and four of those came when she most needed them in the deciding game, which she took 7-3.
With the wind picking up, an undaunted Cibulkova resumed her plan of avoiding that Konjuh wing as the second set began, breaking immediately. The next game proved crucial, though: lasting nearly 20 minutes and comprising 10 deuces, it saw the 28-year-old fend off six break-back points as her younger opponent oscillated wildly between stunning winners and inexplicable errors. In the end, Cibulkova found two of her biggest serves of the match to consolidate her break.
As is so often the case after such epic games, the intensity of the match dipped for the rest of the set: three holds to love followed, and though Cibulkova evoked memories of the opener when she failed to serve it out at 5-2, Konjuh's 15th unforced error and second double fault of the set conceded it limply in the subsequent game.
It turned out that Konjuh was merely keeping her powder dry for a brilliant show of power and variety in the final set, though. She stormed through the first two games for the loss of just two points, demonstrating delicious touch on the dropshot as well as strength from the baseline, then fought through three deuces on the next two to hold a 4-0 lead.
The pendulum hadn't quite finished swinging, though. With the finishing line just within reach at 5-1, Konjuh blinked, losing nine points in a row - including a disastrous and brief attempt to serve out the match - as a rejuvenated Cibulkova, possibly with revenge for the first set in mind, found her range with her forehand to pull back to 4-5. But it wasn't just the Croat's shotmaking ability, for which she has been known since her junior days, that defined the match: in her first-set comeback and her third-set revival, she'd also demonstrated real mental fortitude. This stood Konjuh in good stead as she conjured up a few more unreturnable serves to force her way into the second week of Wimbledon for the first time, where the youngest player left in the draw will face either the oldest, No.10 seed Venus Williams - or the second-youngest, fellow 19-year-old Naomi Osaka.
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