WUHAN, China -- In a tense, hard-hitting battle, No.3 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic overcame Zhang Shuai, the second-ranked player in China, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, on Tuesday at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open.
The nail-biting match was reminiscent of the last tussle between these two players, where Pliskova had to save a match point before prevailing in a draining three-set encounter at the US Open one month ago. Once more, Pliskova came out the victor, in just over two hours.
"I was ready for it, because we played at the US Open," Pliskova said on court after her win. "I was ready for a tough battle today. I'm so happy that I’m through -- it was close."
Despite their recent marathon matches, Pliskova remains undefeated against Zhang, improving her head-to-head record to 5-0. Zhang also sees her 6-match winning streak come to an end, having just won her second career WTA singles title at the Guangzhou Open last week.
"I always want to play better than I was playing last year," Pliskova continued. "Right now I did one round, hopefully I can do one more, because that will improve my record from last year. Definitely, I’m going to have a tough match next one as well, so I will be ready for it."
The high-quality match featured both players having more winners than unforced errors, and both Pliskova and Zhang were nearly untouchable on serve. Each of the three sets contained just one break of serve apiece. Pliskova had nine aces, pushing her over 400 for the season for the fourth consecutive year.
Pliskova took the first set by breaking Zhang's serve at 2-2, and never faced a break point in the opening frame. The Czech's power game was in the pristine form which led her to the World No.1 ranking earlier this year, and took the opener when Zhang hit a wide service return.
But it was the Chinese player who flipped the script right away in the second set. After a visit from the trainer, who tended to her shoulder, Zhang claimed her first break of the match, taking advantage of mistimed unforced errors and a double fault from Pliskova, to lead 3-1.
Remarkably, that was the only break point for either player in that set, and Zhang leveled the match at one set all when Pliskova put a service return into the net. Zhang won 85 percent of her first service points during the second set, and she had the momentum going into the decider in front of an excited crowd of compatriots.
The final set was as compelling as the first two, and as it progressed, it was never evident who would come out on top until the final game. Again, both players were stingy on serve. Zhang got the first crack at a break point after a Pliskova double fault at 1-1, but a huge serve/forehand combo by the Czech erased it, and she went on to hold.
The next break point did not come until 4-3, and this time it was Pliskova who had the opportunity after Zhang sent a backhand barely wide. This time, an ace wiped away the break point, and Zhang held for 4-4.
It was only in the last game of the match where either player seriously faltered on serve, as multiple errors by Zhang gave Pliskova double break point, and double match point. The first was saved by a miraculous Zhang passing shot landing square on the sideline, but a bludgeoning Pliskova forehand on the second match point was too much for Zhang to handle.
“My serve was really good and I won quite a lot of free points, but on return I didn't feel so good. I want to improve it in the next match,” Pliskova said as she began to focus on the challenge ahead.
With her win, she sets up a third-round tilt against another Chinese player, Wang Qiang, who rolled past Sorana Cirstea of Romania, 6-3, 6-3, while Pliskova and Zhang were playing. By virtue of her win, Wang is the first Chinese player to ever reach the third round in Wuhan.