WUHAN, China - No.1 seed Garbiñe Muguruza fended off the challenge of qualifier Magda Linette for a hard-fought 6-2, 1-6, 6-4 win in two hours and three minutes to book her place in the quarterfinals of the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open.
There was little suggestion in the match's initial stages that it would become such a titanic tussle. The World No.1's play was befitting of her ranking as she fired 10 winners and conceded a paltry three points behind her own delivery over the course of a dominant opening set.
Though the Pole consistently attempted to keep the ball away from Muguruza's vicious backhand, the strategy failed to pay off: the top seed's forehand was clicking, her volleys were on song and her movement was sharp as she repeatedly chased down Linette's dropshots with ease.
The World No.88 has a history of peaking in Asia, though - and this year has been quietly putting together one of the finest stretches of her career to date. Champion at the Ningbo WTA 125 event in 2014 and runner-up at the Japan Open, Tokyo in 2015, Linette has successfully navigated the qualifying rounds in her past four Premier tournaments and won main draw matches in her past three - including a career-best victory over World No.21 Daria Gavrilova last week in Tokyo.
In the second set, the 25-year-old showed her intent in the second game by moving the Spaniard around the court before putting away an overhead to garner her first break point of the match - eventually taken when Muguruza sent a forehand wide. This would be something of a theme of the second set as that wing began to break down, conceding eight unforced errors as the top seed quickly fell behind 0-5. "The second set I didn't play well. I did way too many mistakes. I was playing perfect for her," she mused afterwards.
Linette, for her part, had increasing success catching Muguruza out with short, low defensive shots and accurate serves out wide. A brief pause to dry the courts following a rain shower couldn't save Muguruza, and Linette served the set out to love in the next game.
The decider found both women raising their levels once more. "I kind of forgot about [the second set at the] start of the third set," remembered Muguruza. "I'm like, Whatever, okay, I have another set to play now."
Though her forehand remained somewhat errant, the 2015 Wuhan finalist was striking her backhand with its usual violence - while Linette was displaying great on-court canniness with her use of crosscourt angles and dropshots. It was the top seed who made the first move, finding her range with the forehand on two massive returns - one of which barely clipped the baseline - en route to breaking Linette to move up 4-2. But the Pole, with a maiden Top 10 win in her sights, responded by upping the aggression with her forehand to break back immediately.
The pattern was repeated once more as Muguruza piled the pressure on to move within one game of the victory, only to squander the chance by leaking another three unforced errors. By this point, though, Linette's inexperience was beginning to tell, and a closing stretch of five consecutive breaks of serve was sealed when the qualifier sent a final forehand wide on match point.
"I didn't really play my best tennis," Muguruza assessed her performance afterwards. "I'm happy, of course. Maybe I didn't jump when I won, but I'm very happy. These are the matches, it sounds classic, but you fight, you go through, you get the victory, you feel pleased with yourself."
In the quarterfinals, Muguruza will face a fellow Slam holder who came through a three-set tussle today in Jelena Ostapenko. Remarkably, it will be the very first meeting in 2017 between any of this year's four Slam champions, and the World No.1 is eager to play. "I saw she won just a title right now," she noted of her younger opponent. "She's having a good year, actually like a breakthrough year. It's interesting. I like to play these matches where you're playing the players that are playing the best."