MADRID, Spain - It was a day of firsts for No.6 Karolina Pliskova, who put on an implacable performance to notch up her maiden win over No.9 seed Sloane Stephens 6-2, 6-3 in one hour and three minutes and make her debut in the Mutua Madrid Open quarterfinals.
In addition, the Czech player's eighth consecutive victory following her title run in Stüttgart means that she is now riding the longest clay winning streak of her career, and third-longest on any surface. One more win, over No.1 seed Simona Halep, would equal Pliskova's nine-match streak of January 2017, and a title here would tie her 11 straight wins in August 2016.
"I was ready for a tough match, and then it was a little bit easier than I expected - which is always the better way," smiled Pliskova afterwards. "It was a little bit similar to the first set [against Victoria Azarenka in the second round]."
There was little indication that Pliskova would hit any of these milestones in the opening stages of the match. In her two previous meetings with Stephens, the former World No.1 had never won more than three games in any set - and today, the American picked up where she had left off in those encounters, with her backhand down the line doing damage in the first two games.
Consecutive double faults paved the path to Pliskova dropping serve in the third game - but when the 26-year-old came back out following the changeover, she responded to the setback with gusto.
Utterly dominating her opponent, Pliskova swept through 12 consecutive points in the blink of an eye, dictating with her serve and forehand and even concluding that run with a deft dropshot-lob combination. That imperious form would seal a 25-minute opening set as the 2016 US Open runner-up ultimately took 20 of its last 22 points, breaking Stephens to love three straight times.
"I felt good, like every shot - forehand, backhand, serve except the two double faults in the second game, I felt like everything was working pretty well," reflected Pliskova. "And also my game against her was working - when she runs she's a little bit worse on clay, not the best.
"I felt really good in the rallies, I didn't mind that it would sometimes take two or three crosses and I was just ready to play the rallies, push and let her run the most because that's where she's worse."
The Miami champion put up some brief resistance at the start of the second set, upping the pace on her forehand to carve out two break points - but Pliskova simply hammered down two unreturnable serves to snuff out those chances. Overall, the 2017 Roland Garros semifinalist would maintain an astonishing 78% first serve percentage, making for an impenetrable stronghold against Stephens' efforts.
With Pliskova on the front foot in the majority of the rallies, Stephens was increasingly forced into error - whether by pulling the trigger too soon in an attempt to seize control, or exposed by the Stüttgart champion's tactic of aiming the ball directly at Stephens in order to challenge her footwork.
The Czech's breakthrough came in the fourth game as another Stephens backhand drifted wide, and from there she simply battened down the hatches even tighter, capturing the last eight points behind her own serve to set up a quarterfinal against World No.1 Simona Halep. That match could be something of a revenge mission for Pliskova - whose twin sister Kristyna was defeated by the Romanian in today's first quarterfinal.
However, she will have to overcome a 1-7 head-to-head deficit to avenge family honor. "There's not much we can talk about, because we know everything!" joked Pliskova of her record against Halep. "Kristyna had some chances today, so that's good - but I think I'm a little more comfortable for [Halep] than Kristyna is."
A useful point of reference could be their Roland Garros semifinal last year: Halep won, but was pushed all the way to a 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 scoreline, and Pliskova now calls it "one of my best matches on clay". Recalling it, she said: "I was not overpowering the shots, I was playing rallies - kind of similar today - but in an aggressive way.
"This is how I somehow want to play."