PARIS, France - Yulia Putintseva has made a dramatic return to the Roland Garros quarterfinals with a fiery, flairsome 6-4, 6-3 victory over No.26 seed Barbora Strycova in exactly one hour and 30 minutes.
"I’m very excited," Putintseva said, following her victory. "I was working hard for that, and I really hope that I can show very good tennis in the quarterfinal."
The unseeded Kazakh, who reached the last eight in Paris two years ago - where she pushed Serena Williams to three sets - played a tactically astute match that showed off both her instinctive understanding of tennis geometry and her rousing penchant for working the crowd.
"I have no idea," Putintseva responded, when asked what about Roland Garros brings out the best in her game. "Maybe it’s the atmosphere of this beautiful tournament. I really love it here, I love the crowd, l love the food -- croissants and the desserts!" the World No.98 laughed.
"I’ve been doing a lot of physical work, because I didn’t play so many matches, because I was out in some tournaments very early," Putintseva also explained. "Some three-set, very tough losses. But I found my way to fight and keep on going, and when I won a few matches here, I got my confidence back. Now I’ve started to play better and better."
It was Putintseva's first win over Strycova in three meetings, having previously lost to the Czech in straight sets in the 2012 Biella ITF $100,000 event and last year in the first round of Birmingham. "It’s great that I finally found the right tactic and I won against this tricky opponent," Putintseva exclaimed.
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The dropshot has been one of the 23-year-old's key weapons as she has fist-pumped her way into the second week, and she cheerfully wheeled it out repeatedly in the early stages of today's match. But it wasn't just Putintseva's touch on the shot that was remarkable but her anticipation of where to move after hitting it: even when Strycova could get the ball back in play, the 2016 quarterfinalist would be in just the right place to either float it back over her head or thread the needle with a pass. One such exchange carved out a first break point in the third game, which the Czech conceded by belting a forehand long.
The first set was characterized by increasingly variegated rallies and delightful touch exchanges: on one point, Putintseva would load up on topspin to test Strycova's backhand, and on the next she would switch to exclusively slicing her own backhand.
But the World No.98 would prove more solid on serve, landing 72% of her first deliveries compared to Strycova's 60% in the first set as she sliced and diced her way to a 5-2 lead. The double break insurance would prove necessary as the Linz champion fought back with some strong backhands and canny net play, but on the second time of asking, Putintseva's tennis IQ was on full display as she sealed the set with a clever combination of dropshots and passes.
The pattern continued in the second set, with one wrongfooting Putintseva pass leaving Strycova sprawled in the clay at net as her opponent exhorted herself. A cascade of errors followed from the racket of a shaken Strycova, who would eventually rack up 33 unforced mistakes as she found herself unable to penetrate Putintseva's defence.
Down 1-4, the 2014 Wimbledon quarterfinalist once again battled to regain the break as Putintseva offered up a handful of rare errors - but the former World No.27 responded by conjuring up another sequence of delightful lobs and dropshots to capture eight of the final nine points of the match.
Strycova, who had only won four matches in 11 previous visits to Roland Garros, can content herself with her finest run in Paris and consecutive second-week Slam showings for the first time in her career.
Putintseva, meanwhile, will face fellow 23-year-old and erstwhile junior rival Madison Keys to play for her maiden Grand Slam semifinal - over whom she holds a 3-0 head-to-head lead, twice at U18 level and once in Tokyo in 2016.
"I was playing a lot of matches [against Keys] in juniors," said Putintseva. "I remember she’s always been so solid, a very good player, good serve, big forehand, very good shots. So it’s going to be a very difficult match for me."
"Right now I just want to focus on what I have to do in my next match: be ready and fight until the end. And we’ll see what can happen."