MADRID, Spain - No.9 seed Ashleigh Barty was forced to come through a second consecutive three-setter to protect her winning streak at the Mutua Madrid Open, but ultimately sealed her 11th victory in a row - and a place in her maiden Premier clay quarterfinal - 4-6, 6-1, 6-2 over Yulia Putintseva.
The Australian's overall record this season is now 23-3, and she has lost just once since her maiden Grand Slam quarterfinal run at the Australian Open in January - a three-hour, 12-minute marathon to Elina Svitolina in the fourth round of Indian Wells. Fresh off leading her country into the Fed Cup final for the first time since 1993, Barty's career-best year is now seeing her transfer her skillset to clay for the first time at this level.
The 23-year-old has admitted that in past years, the clay swing has functioned mostly as a countdown to her beloved grass - and prior to this week, her only deep runs om the terre battue had come at International level in Strasbourg, where she made the quarterfinals in 2017 and the semifinals last year. Indeed, Barty's topsy-turvy win over Danielle Collins in the second round here was just her first Top 40 win on clay.
Putintseva, by contrast, has two Roland Garros quarterfinals under her belt - and had defeated Barty 6-3, 6-2 in their only previous meeting, albeit eight years ago in the 2011 Traralgon junior event when the Kazakh was 16 years old and Barty 14. And it seemed as though Putintseva's panache would be triumphant over the course of an opening set in which her proficiency on the surface shone through.
Constructing complex points that made use of every shot in the book, the World No.43 combined dropshots, lobs and passes to draw first blood, breaking for 2-1. A sequence of five breaks would follow as both players found probing each other's service games easier than protecting their own, but it was Putintseva who found a significant strategic advantage in sending high topspin balls to Barty's backhand corner. The Miami champion was forced to either hit awkward, ineffective slices or run around her forehand - and frequently overpress, mindful of the open court she had left. With errors flowing from Barty, Putintseva found a much-needed service hold to close the opener out on her third set point.
The second set was a scratchier affair, with both players opting for cagier rallies in damp conditions that were mostly decided by errors. Putintseva in particular suffered a letdown following her first-set performance, lapsing into passivity and oddly routine mistakes, particularly on the backhand.
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Meanwhile, there were signs that Barty was getting to grips with the tactical adjustments she needed to make. Anticipating Putintseva's dropshots with greater alacrity, the Zhuhai Elite Trophy champion repeatedly chased them down to break twice en route to a 4-0 lead. Barty was also demonstrating greater patience - and a good deal of trickery of her own - in dealing with Putintseva's more awkward spins and placements, trusting herself to grind through rallies before the opportunity came to go after her forehand.
As the match entered the decider, it was Putintseva who was at sea both in terms of tactics and execution, with few of her patterns garnering the results that they had earlier. With Barty now happy to respond like for like when it came to high topspin, it was a source of some frustration to Putintseva that these rallies were now invariably ending with an error from her own side.
The increasingly vocal 24-year-old attempted to up her aggression from the baseline, but mostly succeeded only in raising her tally of errors even higher - while Barty, serving well and playing within herself, was able to come up with several delightful dropshots of her own as she moved to another 4-0 lead. A battling Putintseva held two break points to recapture one of the breaks - but Barty extricated herself from that game with a brace of unreturnable serves, and two games later closed the match out to love.
Having won 12 of the last 15 games to come through in two hours and four minutes, Barty's quarterfinal test will be none other than two-time champion and No.3 seed Simona Halep, who had earlier looked untouchable during a double bagel dismissal of Viktoria Kuzmova.