Former World No.13 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova kickstarted her 2018 season in thrilling fashion at the Internationaux de Strasbourg, winning her 12th career title after playing three tie-breaks in a three hour, 35 minute epic against Dominika Cibulkova.
"I think it was a great match," she explained in a voice memo as she took the train to Paris. "Hitting more than 70 winners, that's impressive...and very positive for me and the team. In the first set, I didn't feel quite so well with my game and everything as I had in previous matches. But I'm still happy I could come through and win in the end.
"Of course, I'm very pleased with this match and I think it's one of the most dramatic. It was good for sport and tennis to have this amazing match, epic final like this."
Playing the longest non-Grand Slam match of the season, Pavlyuchenkova saved a pair of match points in the tenth game of the decider as the match headed to an improbable third straight sudden death. She then shook off missing out on two match points of her own before outlasting the Slovak in one last gut-busting rally, 6-7(5), 7-6(3), 7-6(6), ending just 10 minutes shy of Simona Halep's 15-13 final set victory over Lauren Davis at the Australian Open.
"At the beginning I think the atmosphere was more towards Dominika but I think slowly they started to support me as well, because they saw that I was there, I was fighting so I think it was pretty much equal," she said of the Court Patrice Dominguez crowd. "That made it a great atmosphere, and it was nice.
"In the first tiebreak, I was thinking that I was up 5-2 so I thought it should be in my pocket but I didn't get it. In the second one, I was just hoping to stay alive and get the set, and was ready to fight in the third. In the third set I was really, really tired but still kept on fighting and playing every point, and here it is. I got the trophy, and I couldn't believe it."
The Russian now heads to Roland Garros, where she'll open against TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup runner-up Polona Hercog, on a five-match winning streak. Coming into Strasbourg, she had won just four matches at her last nine events as a persistent shoulder injury undid the progress she'd made last fall, reaching the Toray Pan Pacific Open final and winning the Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open.
"It gives me a little bit more confidence going into the French Open, but I'm just enjoying the moment now, and not thinking about Paris now. I'm just hoping to stay fit and recover well for the upcoming match on Monday or Tuesday, that will be important. I think conditions are pretty similar, same balls - physically, right now, I feel okay, I don't feel anything. I just feel very tired, emotionally, and it was really hot as well. For the moment I'm fine, I'm on the train right now so let's see how I feel tomorrow.
"The forecast is predicting some rain, it's great, I would be totally relieved and it would be nice to have some extra days, some extra hours to rest and recover. The would be great for me."
Seeded No.30 in Paris, Pavlyuchenkova was a dark horse at last year's French Open after back-to-back title runs at the Abierto GNP Segurus and the Grand Prix de SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem but took a surprising loss to Veronica Cepede Royg. Projected to play 2016 champion Garbiñe Muguruza in the third round, the 26-year-old is nonetheless optimistic about her chances to match her 2011 French Open run to the last eight.
"I was 19 years old when I made the quarterfinals," she recalled. "I was 6-1, 4-1 up against Francesca Schiavone and lost, unfortunately, but that's one of the best memories I have so far. In juniors I played the final against Agnieszka Radwanska in 2006. That's a lot of good memories from there. I like clay, I like Paris, I like French Open so it's one of my favorite Grand Slams. I take my confidence from here this week and the good tennis I was showing, attitude and fighting spirit. I'm hoping to keep it up for the next week."