ZHUHAI, China -- Magdalena Rybarikova got on the board in the round-robin portion of the Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Wednesday, outlasting No.1 seed Kristina Mladenovic, 7-5, 1-6, 7-6(5) in a grueling encounter lasting two hours and 48 minutes.
The Slovakian needed seven match points to claim her first win in the Azalea Group, after dropping her first match to Julia Goerges on Tuesday, and with it she improved her group record to 1-1. Meanwhile, Mladenovic stands at 0-1, and will have to beat Goerges later in the week to have any chance to advance.
Rybarikova comes into the Zhuhai event in solid form, reaching her first final of the year in her most recent event, the Upper Austria Ladies Linz (losing to fellow Zhuhai competitor Barbora Strycova). She extends her head-to-head against Mladenovic to 2-0, adding to a win at the French Open way back in 2009.
Mladenovic is mired in an 11-match losing streak, dating back to the CitiOpen in Washington, D.C. in August. Nevertheless, the Frenchwoman cracked the Top 10 for the first time in her career last month, via a superb start to 2017 where she won the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy and reached the final of the Mutua Madrid Open.
Mladenovic sees progress in her game after the narrow loss against Rybarikova. "I think it was a great match," the World No.10 told the media after the match. "It was especially a great battle. For sure it's the best match I have played in a while."
Both players made it known from the start that they would be moving into the forecourt as much as they could, putting away volleys, or seeing passing shots go by them. In spite of her recent form, Mladenovic was aggressive and inventive, continually attempting to use her powerful all-court game to gain an edge.
However, after an early exchange of breaks, it was Rybarikova who gained the crucial lead late in the opener. At 5-5 and deuce, Rybarikova charged the net, forcing an attempted backhand pass from Mladenovic which went into the net. The Slovakian broke for 6-5 on the next point when a Mladenovic backhand error went long.
Rybarikova clinched a tight first set in the next game, as the Frenchwoman finished the opening frame with 15 unforced errors, including four double faults. But any thoughts that this would be a straight-set encounter were quickly dispelled, as Rybarikova began to struggle with her back and hip.
The 29-year-old, ranked World No.22 and a semifinalist at Wimbledon this season, struggled with her injury during the entire second set, and after ceding a 4-1 lead, took a medical timeout. Mladenovic was not perturbed by the break, racing to a 6-1 set, in which she hit 13 winners to only five unforced errors.
The players entered into a deciding set, which would extend to the bitter end. After they traded breaks for 2-2, Rybarikova seemed to clinch the decisive lead of the match, when she grabbed a 4-2 headstart after Mladenovic pushed a forehand unforced error into the net.
But that was simply the first of four consecutive breaks of service, as both players were struggling with their serves while excelling on return. Rybarikova had a chance to quell that pattern with a match point on her serve at 5-3, but the World No.10 saved it with a smash, and she was back on serve two points later after a forehand crosscourt winner.
The top seed staved off two more match points in the next game to level the set at 5-5, and had to save a fourth match point serving at 6-5, which she did with huge forehands setting up a penetrating forehand volley. Rybarikova could only shake her head at Mladenovic's strong play on the match points, which sent them to a deciding tiebreak.
Too many unforced errors by Mladenovic off both wings let Rybarikova take a 5-2 lead in the tiebreak, and after the Slovakian's next two service points, she led 6-3 with three more match points. Mladenovic again stepped up her game, winning both match points on her serve thanks to her net-rushing power game.
But, on her seventh match point, Rybarikova held firm to seal victory when Mladenovic hit a forehand into the net, keeping the Slovakian's hopes alive to finish the 2017 season with a title in Zhuhai.