ROME, Italy -- In a battle between former World No.1 players, No.4 seed Karolina Pliskova of the Czech Republic earned the 500th match-win of her career by claiming a 6-7(5), 6-2, 6-2 victory over Victoria Azarenka of Belarus in the quarterfinals of the Internazionali BNL d’Italia on Friday.
"I think the last couple years I know I'm playing a lot of three-setters," said Pliskova, this year's WTA leader in three-set match wins. "I'm not panicking if I lose first set or even the second. I'm just there. I keep fighting. I feel quite confident coming to the third set, because I know I won quite a lot in last couple of years."
"Fitness-wise, I feel great," Pliskova added. "There is no problem that I will lose energy in the third set. Anyway, I'm going to try the next one in two," she said with a smile.
By virtue of the two-hour and 26-minute victory, Pliskova leveled her head-to-head against Azarenka to 4-4, and avenged a loss to the Belarusian in their most recent meeting on the indoor clay-courts of Stuttgart last month, where Pliskova was defending champion.
After dropping the first set in a tiebreak despite leading 4-1, Pliskova eased to the win from there, and the Czech wrapped up the match with 41 winners to 26 unforced errors. 11 of those winners were aces, meaning Pliskova has, for now, reclaimed the ace lead in the 2019 season from Kiki Bertens. Pliskova is now up with 245 aces for the year, to Bertens's 236.
"The [last] two sets, I don't think it was easy, because the score looked quite easy," said Pliskova. "I just had many chances, more chance than in the first. Also on the returns, I just went for it more. My serve was better actually, and that's why it ended this way."
Pliskova and Azarenka now each have 500 career wins apiece. Azarenka earned her 500th career victory on Thursday over Garbiñe Muguruza via retirement.
In the semifinals, Pliskova will face the victor from the evening’s all-qualifier battle between Kristina Mladenovic of France and Maria Sakkari of Greece. The winner of that match will be the first qualifier to reach the final four in Rome since Daria Gavrilova in 2015.
"I think [Sakkari] was playing great yesterday," Pliskova stated. "She has a great clay court game. Of course, would be tough to beat her.
"On the other hand I think [Mladenovic], she won a lot of matches, went from qualies here. Every time she's winning two, three matches on every tournament. I think her confidence is getting back up. We didn't play for a while. I think she likes clay because she can use the forehand and the slice and the dropshot. I think she's confident on clay. I think both are going to be tough."
Pliskova started the match serving well and drawing unforced errors from the racquet of Azarenka, and the Czech went up a break at 3-1 following a long backhand by the Belarusian on break point. After a love service hold gave Pliskova a 4-1 lead, the fourth seed was extremely close to picking up a swift one-set lead.
Azarenka, however, began to turn her game around, firing groundstrokes down the line at will to polish off points, earning the break back at 4-2 as she maneuvered back on serve. Pliskova deployed a dropshot to reclaim her break and serve for the set at 5-3, but Azarenka continued to improve, slamming a stellar return to break right back, as the players moved towards a tiebreak.
In the breaker, a double fault by Azarenka gave Pliskova a 4-3 lead, but the Belarusian wrested control from there, using her down-the-line backhand to claim two commanding points in a row and reach her first set point at 6-5. Pliskova surprisingly blinked at the worst possible moment, double faulting and ceding the one-set lead to Azarenka.
Pliskova, though, came roaring back in the second set. Azarenka set the table for the Czech’s comeback by firing two double faults en route to being broken in the opening game, and Pliskova consolidated her lead with a huge-serving love hold to race to 2-0. After pulling through a tight service game for 3-1, Pliskova was generally untroubled on serve for the rest of the set.
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The Czech then clinched an insurance break at 4-2, hitting a deft lob for a winner to notch a third break point of that game, which was converted after a wide backhand by Azarenka. Now up a double-break, Pliskova soared to sealing the second set, holding at love and punctuating the set with her fifth ace of the day.
Pliskova maintained her momentum from the second set as the players entered the decider, and the World No.7 started to ease towards victory. The Czech held for 1-1 with a solid mix of powerful serving and well-placed forehands, and reaped the benefits of earning that challenging hold as Azarenka double faulted twice in the next game to drop serve at love.
At 4-2, Pliskova fired a stunning forehand pass down the line to reach break point, then used another fierce forehand to force an error from Azarenka and break for 5-2. Now up a double-break, Pliskova turned on the cruise control, and the Czech blasted three aces in the final game to collect her win over Azarenka and book a maiden Rome semifinal appearance.