MELBOURNE, Australia - No.7 seed Jelena Ostapenko emerged from a hard-hitting tussle to defeat the unseeded Duan Ying-Ying, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 and move into the third round of the Australian Open for the second year in a row.
It was the first meeting between the pair, and one defined by boom-or-bust tennis and constantly shifting momentum. The Roland Garros champion and her 28-year-old opponent are both fond of high-risk shotmaking - and the advantage tilted first one way and then the other as each player sought to impose her power on the other.
Twice, Duan went up a break in the first set, pummeling her opponent's second service mercilessly: over the course of the first two sets, Ostapenko would win a mere 25% of the points behind her second delivery. "I didn't start the match really well," she acknowledged afterwards. "But then during the match I think I was playing better and better. Also the opponent, she was performing really well today."
The World No.100's serve proved an erratic weapon as well: often lethal, but prone to ill-timed double faults - such as the pair that handed the second break back to the Latvian.
Though both players approached points with first-strike intent, it was Ostapenko who also proved more able to get on top of longer rallies - and as she gained control of the set, reeling off the last four games, she began hitting her spots in often-spectacular fashion. Two brilliant backhands down the line sealed a third break of the Duan serve, and the 20-year-old carved up the court with geometrically precise forehand angles, taking her winner count for the set to 15, before closing it out with an ace.
Just as in the first, the Chinese No.5 went up a break twice in the second set - and was twice pegged back. But Duan was showcasing some beautiful, clean ball striking down the lines and into the corners, and she pounded her way to a third break with some brilliant returns that left Ostapenko flailing. This time, she made no mistake in consolidating her break, banging down some big serves as Ostapenko lapsed into errors.
It was the fifth set that Duan had won from a Top 10 player in 11 meetings - but the Chinese player had yet to translate those spells of brilliance into a victory. Meanwhile, the statistics were firmly on Ostapenko's side: the youngest player in the Top 30 was also one of last year's top performers in deciding sets, winning 23 of the 31 she played in 2017.
These numbers were borne out as Ostapenko leapt out to a 4-1 lead. Out of nowhere, the Latvian had suddenly improved the efficacy of her second serve, winning 75% of the points behind it in the final set and even notching up a couple of aces. Not that it was entirely secure: a fifth double fault invited Duan back into the match in the seventh game, and the former World No.60 took her chance with alacrity as she hauled the score back to level pegging.
Two points in the key ninth game demonstrated Ostapenko's daring - and the extent to which tennis is a game of fine margins.
Down 15-30, the WTA World No.7 offered up a slow second serve, which Duan duly punished by hammering it down the line. Duly - but all too predictably. Ostapenko had anticipated it, covered it and redirected Duan's knockout blow into the open court. At 30-30, Ostapenko had another second serve - and it was an ace which caught the line by millimetres.
High on the momentum of coming through such a dramatic few points, Ostapenko went all-out on the Duan return in the following game, breaking to 15 to book an all-Baltic battle in the third round against No.32 seed Anett Kontaveit. The Estonian is an opponent with whom Ostapenko is familiar, unlike today.
"I know her since juniors," she told the press. "We also won doubles, a 25K, together. She's a great player. It's going to be a tough match. I'm really looking forward to it."