CINCINNATI, OH, USA - The hits keep coming for the unseeded Aryna Sabalenka, who saved a match point and powered to the fourth Top 10 victory of her career over No.6 seed Caroline Garcia 6-4, 3-6, 7-5 on a waterlogged Ohio day to make the last eight of the Western & Southern Open.
"I just say to myself, like, 'Come on. I will put every ball in,'" Sabalenka said in her post-match press conference. "I don't know how [I saved match point] because she did a really great serve and I just played the [return], I don't know, like a baby. She was just going for the next shot, and I was going back, like, 'No, no, no.' Then I don't know. I saved it. So I was lucky a little bit."
All four of those wins have come in the past three months: the Belarusian No.1 began her giant-killing exploits with Karolina Pliskova in Eastbourne, added the scalp of Caroline Wozniacki last week in Montréal and repeated the Pliskova win in the previous round here. This result means that the 20-year-old, the youngest player in the Top 50, will reach a new milestone with her first Premier 5 quarterfinal place.
"When I beat Wozniacki, after that I started to believe in myself more and I started to feel comfortable against these players. I don't feel this pressure, like, 'Oh, she's a top player and I'm, like, 30-something.' Now I am pretty comfortable, and I know that I can do it, and this is, like, unbelievable wins for me.
"Wozniacki is especially uncomfortable for me, because she put a lot of balls in and she's really good mover on the court. After I beat her, I think I start to think, 'Well, if I can beat these kind of players, so why I cannot do, cannot beat another one?' This is really good."
It was not just an accomplished opponent that Sabalenka had to deal with but weather that seemed designed for maximum frustration. The start of the match was delayed for five hours thanks to torrential rain, and the first time they took the court the players managed just two games before the deluge restarted.
That had been sufficient for Sabalenka to seize a 2-0 lead, though. Garcia's backhand wing leaked errors from the off, but the Lugano and Eastbourne runner-up suffered no such issues, hammering a backhand pass to break in the first game.
On resumption, the Frenchwoman would have ample chance to break back, but saw a 0-40 lead wiped out in the blink of an eye, Sabalenka hammering down two aces then firing consecutive backhand winners down the line to hold.
The World No.34, who has been working with new coach Dmitry Tursunov since the grass court season, would continue to push her higher-ranked opponent hard on return, but despite embroiling Garcia in several multiple deuce games was unable to take advantage of four more break points that would have given her a double break.
Not that it mattered (yet): winning 82% of her first serve points, Sabalenka was now protecting her own delivery efficiently, and closed out the set on her first attempt with a fourth ace.
But the youngster's poor break point conversion rate worsened in the second set - and this time, Garcia was able to make her less experienced rival pay. The Frenchwoman came through a tight third game, and then fended off three break points with strong serving two games later.
"I hope I will start to win in two sets. When I was like 40-Love, the second set, 2-2, 40-0 on her serve, I missed the return and I look at him and he was smiling. I was so pissed with everything because I didn't put the return in, and then I couldn't return her serve. So it was like 3-2 and she broke my serve. I was, like, 'Again, again and again.' He was also, like, 'Okay. One more set.'"
As is so often the case, missed opportunities for one would be followed by a resurgence for the other: having survived that juncture, the Wuhan and Beijing champion struck in the very next game, catching Sabalenka out with a high, looped return followed by a neat volley putaway on break point for 4-2.
With Garcia serving for the set, a seventh consecutive break point came and went for Sabalenka before the 24-year-old levelled the scoreline on her first set point. Sabalenka credited Tursunov with helping her regroup for the ensuing decider.
"If I had a crazy coach, can you imagine how we will be at this? If I lost second set and he got pissed with me and went off the court and I would start to be really worried about it. This way I think it's working, because he's calm. I'm a little bit passionate about winning, and I'm, like, crazy sometimes on the court. Sometimes when I look at him and I see that he's calm, I'm, like, 'Okay, so he's calm, I think everything's right.' So I just keep calm and go for it."
The Frenchwoman nonetheless came out with the edge after three straight breaks of serve marked the start of the final set, eding ahead with a 2-1 lead. She defended her advantage for the next six games, fighting off a break point from Sabalenka in the tense exchanges that followed.
But as the set wore on it was Sabalenka who turned up the heat, keeping pressure on Garcia and saving match point at 4-5 with a powerful forehand to stay in the contest. She carried the momentum to finally earn the break back and level the score at 5-5, and after Garcia fired two forehands long, broke once more to take the match after two hours and 36 minutes.
Up next, Sabalenka will face another big test in her next match, as No.13 seed Madison Keys awaits in the quarterfinals.
"I just feel calm and fight, like always, and try to, like, show people like my best tennis and we will see what it will be."