MOSCOW, Russia -- In a marathon encounter, Russian youngster Natalia Vikhlyantseva outlasted Alizé Cornet of France and advanced to the Kremlin Cup semifinals on Thursday, 4-6, 7-5, 6-3.
The first meeting between the two players featured numerous long games with various twists and turns, but it was Vikhlyantseva who came back from a break down in the third set to triumph in a three-hour barnburner.
The 20-year-old, in the Moscow main draw for the first time in her career, survived a grueling tussle with the French veteran, as the two players had 28 break points between them, but only converted ten of those. Both Vikhlyantseva and Cornet struggled with thigh injuries during the match as well.
But aggressive play paid off for Vikhlyantseva at the end, as her 46 winners were enough to negate the 60 unforced errors which came from her racquet. Cornet was less effective in the latter stages of the match, finishing the tilt with 46 unforced errors to only 21 winners.
Vikhlyantseva took the early lead in the match, breaking Cornet for 3-2 after some exceptional hitting off the backhand side, including a winner up the line on her first break point of the game. But Cornet broke back in the next game with some excellent scrambling, combined with inconsistency from Vikhlyantseva’s forehand.
Cornet did not let Vikhlyantseva get a foothold in any of her remaining service games in the set. The Frenchwoman claimed the decisive break for a one-set lead when, on set point, she punched a volley which the tall Russian could not reach before the double bounce.
At the beginning of the second set, extended rallies were the norm, as Vikhlyantseva used more margin on her powerful shots, while Cornet doggedly ran down everything the Russian threw at her.
After an exchange of breaks in the first two games of the second set, Cornet had to stave off five break points in her next two service games to stay on serve to 3-2. Later, Vikhlyantseva took a medical timeout to have her thigh tended to, but kept swinging freely en route to 4-4.
At this point, Cornet started to appear hindered by her own injury, buckling after serves or longer points. Vikhlyantseva eventually took control of the set, hitting a forehand winner crosscourt to break Cornet at love for a 6-5 lead and a chance to serve for the set.
Cornet took a medical timeout to have her thigh tended to before Vikhlyantseva served, and saved two set points and reached break point with exquisite returns. But a missed backhand down the line by Cornet kept Vikhlyantseva in the game, and she closed out the set with a backhand winner on her fourth game point.
Cornet got a second wind in the final set, breaking the Russian at love for a 3-1 lead. But the 27-year-old could not consolidate the break, and after a forehand winner, Vikhlyantseva found herself back on serve at 3-2.
Cornet continually tested Vikhlyantseva's movement with drop shots, but as the match wore on, those became less successful. One particular drop shot misfire at 3-3 gave the Russian a chance to take her first lead since the opening set, which was ceded to her when Cornet double faulted on the next point.
With the momentum firmly behind her and the partisan crowd cheering her every move, Vikhlyantseva held easily for 5-3, and then broke a fatigued Cornet for the third consecutive time, closing out the match when one last forehand by the Frenchwoman went wide.
No.7 seed Julia Goerges will be Vikhlyantseva's semifinal opponent. The German, who has made three WTA singles finals this season, eased past Lesia Tsurenko of Ukraine in straight sets earlier on Thursday, 6-3, 6-4. Goerges, now into her second straight semifinal in Moscow, played Tsurenko for the fourth time this year, and evened their head-to-head in 2017 at two wins apiece.
"Lesia's always been a tough opponent for me, and we've had quite a lot of battles in the past," Goerges told the press afterwards. "It was a very tough two-setter even though the scoreline may not look like that. I'm just very happy to get through."
The other semifinal will pit Romania's Irina-Camelia Begu against another Russian, Daria Kasatkina. Kasatkina dispatched Aliaksandra Sasnovich of Belarus, 6-4, 6-3, while Begu had an incredibly tough struggle with another Belarussian, qualifier Vera Lapko, ultimately prevailing 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.
Begu led 3-0 in the final set, but Lapko went on a run which saw her serve for the match at 5-4. The qualifier could not hold on, and Begu, the Kremlin Cup runner-up in 2014, survived. "I really had to fight for every point," said Begu, after the match. "I have to congratulate [Lapko], she played really amazing."
"Playing the final years ago, I have good memories, and I always feel good here," Begu continued. She expects a challenging match against her occasional doubles partner Kasatkina, "first of all because she's a really good player, and second of all because she's playing at home. This is a semifinal, and I expect a tough one."