NEW YORK, NY, USA - No.3 seed Karolina Pliskova successfully navigated past the beguiling shotmaking of Ons Jabeur 6-1, 4-6, 6-4 in two hours and eight minutes.
The Czech has now reached the second week at Flushing Meadows for four straight years, her finest stretch of success at any major. In her first meeting with Jabeur, the first Tunisian to reach the third round of the US Open, Pliskova was forced to draw on all of her experience to eke out a contest that was initially all too one-sided, but which Jabeur threatened to turn into a canvas for her rare shotmaking skills as she slammed 49 winners and matched the World No.3 with 10 aces apiece.
"Once you're not feeling great... her game is not super nice to play because she plays kind of everything," reflected Pliskova, who described the match as "strange", afterwards. "I don't even know if she knows what she's playing, and then it was quite difficult. In the end, good. It was big fight. Not for sure the best feeling but I won, which is good."
The 25-year-old showed off those off out of the gates, out-manoeuvring Pliskova with an angled pass, a down-the-line winner and a dropshot in the first game, but could not take advantage of a break point as the 2016 runner-up held with a brace of aces.
Thereafter, the World No.62 fell away somewhat. Two double faults paved the way to a break of her own serve and a run of 11 out of 12 points won by Pliskova; even an uncharacteristically loose service game from the Czech, conceded on a double fault of her own, could not turn around the momentum. Shedding 16 unforced errors in just seven games, primarily from the forehand side, Jabeur was unable to build on the gift. Pliskova, landing 75% of her first serves and even winning some of the cat-and-mouse points that are usually Jabeur's forte, broke again and served out the set to 15.
Having had her knee wrapped between sets and moving gingerly, Jabeur rapidly fell behind a break in the second set with seemingly no way back. But the Eastbourne semifinalist flipped the script in style, finally showing off her renowned talent to reel off five straight games.
During this stretch, Jabeur conjured up beautifully carved volleys, delicate dropshots, two reflexed backhand slice winners off full-power Pliskova groundstrokes, five aces and six clean return winners. Three consecutive Pliskova service games turned into epic multi-deuce mini-marathons; Jabeur won the first two on her fifth break point in each. Flummoxed by her opponent's unpredictability and variety and frustrated at her clutch play, Pliskova - whose first serve percentage had sunk to 48% - drew a code violation for breaking a racquet during the seventh game.
The former World No.1 battled hard, saving two set points and coming through seven deuces to win the third of her extended service games - and when Jabeur, serving for the set, dropped her own serve to love, Pliskova seemed to have turned the tide. But the Moscow finalist upped the ante, hammering two more no-holds barred return winners to take the set on return.
Jabeur's scintillating highlights-reel play continued into the decider: the former World No.54 drew gasps with repeated down-the-line winners into the corners - even one sliced from well behind the baseline that left Pliskova rooted to the ground. Unfortunately for the unseeded player, who converted only 5 out of 23 break points over the course of the match, her ability to produce her magic on big points did not continue: she squandered a 40-0 lead to drop serve in the opening game, then failed to convert two break-back points in the following game, before falling behind a 1-4 double break as her unforced error tally rose to 43.
Another flurry of winners threatened another comeback from Jabeur, who snatched one of the breaks back and held two points to level the scoreline at 4-4. But Pliskova had regained her composure by this point, holding the lower-ranked player off and firing her ninth and 10th aces of the day, and two games later coolly served the match out to 15. An off backhand winner, Pliskova's 30th of the day, set up a fourth-round clash against either No.16 seed Johanna Konta or No.33 seed Zhang Shuai.
"She just went for it," said Pliskova of the closing stages of the match. "She was 4-1 down so I think she took off the mistakes and she just went a little bit more for the return. Also, I was hitting a lot of second serves, so that's a problem after - because she was just stepping in the court and just was ready always for my second serve. So I just needed to put some first serves in, which happened. Couple games I was just serving a little bit better. And then of course then the rallies are much different than if you go always to second."