MELBOURNE, Australia - No.32 seed Anett Kontaveit triumphed in one of the best matches of the Australian Open so far, taking a pulsating all-Baltic third-round battle to upend No.7 seed Jelena Ostapenko 6-3, 1-6, 6-3 in one hour and 53 minutes.
It was the 22-year-old's third career Top 10 win (following Garbiñe Muguruza in Stüttgart last year, and Angelique Kerber in Rome two weeks later), and she was over the moon afterwards. "It feels amazing, what else could I say?" she said. "Yeah, I'm definitely really happy with the win. It was a really tough battle."
Ostapenko, meanwhile, complimented Kontaveit's level. "I think she played one of her best matches - she had nothing to lose," she told reporters. "I had all this pressure that I had to win the match."
The two players have known each other since their junior days - on both sides of the net. In tandem, they won a $25,000 ITF event in Tallinn in 2013 - but in opposition, the Estonian has had the firm upper hand, defeating Ostapenko 6-3, 6-1 in a junior event in Linz, Austria in 2011, and 6-1, 6-2 in the second round of the Ilkley $50,000 ITF tournament in 2015.
In the first set, dominated by the returner with just one hold of serve in total, Kontaveit's familiarity with her opponent showed. The unpredictability and disguise on Ostapenko's shot patterns has been a significant weapon as the 20-year-old has made her way on to the Tour, but time and again Kontaveit's superb anticipation would keep her in rallies despite Ostapenko pounding the ball to all corners of the court or creating her trademark sharp angles with her forehand.
In many of those cases, the World No.33 would either turn the point around with her own not-inconsiderable power - or elicit an error from Ostapenko, who would commit 18 unforced errors to just eight winners in the opening set.
Meanwhile, the Latvian's serve was not on song: a 53% first serve percentage simply would not cut it when she was winning only 20% of her second serve points, and she was broken in each of her five service games in the first set.
A turnaround seemed unlikely when the Roland Garros champion took a medical timeout before the second set, getting her left thigh strapped, and was visibly limping between points. Afterwards, Ostapenko told the press that she had felt the pain since Sydney, and though it had gone away, it had returned in Melbourne. "Unfortunately it came much worse, and I couldn't really move 100%," she said.
In the match, however, the injury seemed to simply sharpen Ostapenko's concentration - particularly on shortening points, landing her first serves and finishing points from a winning position.
In a plot twist, a wincing Ostapenko broke to open the set - and then held to love for the first time. A flurry of winners from the Latvian racket followed, totalling 12 across the set, while dramatically improved serving - her first serve percentage would end up at 70% - enabled her to rack up a number of quick points behind her delivery.
But Ostapenko's renewed focus was also evident in her ability to manage scoreboard pressure. When four consecutive games went to deuce, it was the youngest player in the Top 20 who won the first three to move from 2-0 to 5-0, responding to the challenges of key points with precision and aggression.
"I changed the tactics a little bit," she offered afterwards. "I started to play more aggressive and changed the directions more, and I think that helped me. But some games I didn't do that very well, and she started to feel her game again and play better."
By contrast, Kontaveit conceded her third break of the set with her fifth double fault of the night - and though the 22-year-old clawed one break back to avoid the bagel, it was too late to save the set. In the following game, Ostapenko found a brilliant angle on return to set up set point before a Kontaveit forehand drifted wide to send the match into a decider.
There, the next plot twist comprised two back-to-back love holds - a signal that finally, both players were playing well simultaneously. Kontaveit withstood increasingly precise hitting from Ostapenko to capture the first break in the third game, but two double faults handed it back. The match's intensity reached new levels in an astonishing 12-minute seventh game which saw the advantage tugged back and forth across seven deuces as first one player then the other landed pummeling blows.
Ostapenko managed to fend off four break points, one with a stunning rally in which she sent laser-like groundstrokes fizzing from line to line - but once more, it was her second serve that let her down in the game's final stages. On her fifth break point, Kontaveit punished it with a massive backhand return to put herself in the driving seat.
"Yeah, very important game," she agreed. "I was just taking it point by point. I think that's the only way you can look at it."
It was little surprise that this game would prove crucial: now in full flow, Kontaveit would power through eight of the final 10 points of the match to book her place in the fourth round against Carla Suárez Navarro. Having never won a main draw match on her previous two visits to Melbourne, the Estonian will play a Grand Slam second week for the second time - and first since the 2015 US Open.