NEW YORK, NY, USA - For a while, it looked as though No.1 seed Karolina Pliskova would be joining the exodus of big names from the US Open, which had already seen four of its Top 8 seeds depart by the end of first Wednesday - but the World No.1 fought back to overcome the plucky qualifier Nicole Gibbs 2-6, 6-3, 6-4.
Nine years ago, a qualifier had toppled the World No.1 in the second round of the US Open, and Gibbs began as though inspired by memories of Julie Coin's famous victory over Ana Ivanovic. The World No.127 dominated a 32-minute opening set with a dazzling display of tennis - not only with her trademark hustle, on full display as she carved out an early break point by scampering around the court, but by some inspired shot-making. Gibbs's forehand was lethal in putting short balls away, but her use of the backhand to redirect her Czech opponent's pace also made for a pair of breathtaking winners. In total, the American struck 14 winners to a meagre four unforced errors in the opener.
By contrast, Pliskova seemed sluggish, and her prime weapons were misfiring. Landing just 56% of her first serves and winning 29% of her second service points, the 25-year-old offered up 15 unforced errors and four double faults - three of which came in the fifth game to result in a double break deficit. Though Gibbs had lost both of her meetings with Pliskova at Tour level, the American had scored a win back in 2011, in the Rancho Santa Fe ITF $25,000 event - and it seemed as though she was on her way to repeating that victory on a much bigger stage.
Each woman saved a break point with a big serve in the second set's opening brace of games, but while Gibbs continued her swashbuckling aggression off the ground, Pliskova raised her level enough to keep the scoreboard level. Last year's runner-up raised her first serve percentage to 74% and reduced her error count to just seven - thus making her well-placed to strike when her opponent's level faltered just slightly. Serving down 3-4, a pair of Gibbs groundstrokes - the kind that were landing in the court for winners minutes earlier - hit the top of the tape, and Pliskova had broken through for the first time. A game later, the World No.1 had squared the match at a set all.
The 24-year-old Stanford University graduate continued battling in the deciding set, coming through two multi-deuce tussles in its opening stages to keep her nose in front. But having won just four Tour-level matches in 2017, the frustration at being unable to make an impact on Pliskova's serve - now nicely grooved, with the Czech winning 100% of her first serve points in the final set.
Serving down 2-3, Pliskova reeled off 11 consecutive points, sending Gibbs scrambling as she sent booming returns into the corners; as her accuracy improved, so her opponent increasingly misfired, conceding 13 unforced errors in the third set. Gibbs would force Pliskova to serve it out - but the Czech had little issue with that, closing the match out to love after one hour and 46 minutes to set up a third round against No.27 seed Zhang Shuai or Risa Ozaki. There's also the not-so-small matter of retaining her No.1 ranking: Pliskova remains in contention, along with four other women, of finishing the US Open fortnight at the summit.