ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - Back on her beloved indoor courts, Alison van Uytvanck maintained her unbeaten record against 2017 champion Kristina Mladenovic to move into the second round of the St. Petersburg Ladies Trophy, 6-4, 6-1, in one hour and 18 minutes.
Three of the Belgian's four career titles have come indoors - and she came into today's clash having already notched up two straight-set wins over Mladenovic in as many meetings, in Wuhan qualifying in 2014 and in the third round of Roland Garros in 2015 en route to her sole Grand Slam quarterfinal to date.
In a clash between two players searching for their first singles main draw victory of 2020, van Uytvanck drew on her past record to come through a scrappy opening passage of play - before finding some scintillating form to take control, eventually tallying 20 winners to six unforced errors.
"If I could choose, I would play the whole year indoors," said van Uytvanck afterwards. "I prefer to play indoors, even though all the big tournaments are outdoors. I did win an outdoor tournament [Tashkent, in 2019], which was nice for me to finally do well outdoors. But here, you don't have the wind, you don't have the sun, which helps my game."
Tuesday's victory was a welcome recovery from a January that did not go as planned for the 25-year-old.
"I started the year being ill, and I only had two matches [so far]," Van Uytvanck revealed. "You don't have these things in hand. I was working really hard in the preseason: not injured, not ill, then I come to Auckland and after two to three days, I started to feel really bad.
"It happens, you know - you can't control these things, and health is more important than trying to play at 50%... so it was a little nerve-wracking to come here and play a girl who actually has won the tournament. I knew it was going to be tough but I'm happy with the way I played, the way I handled the situation, and definitely the second set was a good level from me."
The first six games of the match saw four breaks of serve alone as both players struggled to find consistency off the ground. There were moments of magic from both - a flicked forehand angle from Van Uytvanck in the fifth game, a scorching series of returns from Mladenovic in the sixth game - but plenty of routine errors, too.
As the business end of the set approached, it was van Uytvanck who found her groove at the right moment - and in quite spectacular fashion. Turning round a couple of key points with smart defence-to-offence work seemed to loosen the World No.47 up - and the winners began to flow from her racquet, mostly rocketing down the line to leave Mladenovic flailing. A jumping backhand was followed by a fierce forehand to capture the Frenchwoman's serve again for 5-4, before van Uytvanck closed the opening act out brilliantly with another brace of down-the-line bangers and, on her first set point, a delicately placed volley.
The Budapest and Tashkent champion went from strength to strength over the course of a shot-making masterclass in the second set. Van Uytvanck's determination to take the ball as early as possible requires her timing to be absolutely on point - but it was also an effective way to rush Mladenovic, allowing the World No.37 less time to prepare her own groundstrokes and forcing her into errors.
Mladenovic's wobbles began to infect her serve to an unfortunate extent: two double faults in the first game of the second set paved the way to an immediate break, and three more - including two in a row on the last two points, taking her overall tally to seven - sealed the double break for Van Uytvanck at 4-1.
But otherwise, the story of the second set mostly comprised a seemingly unstoppable cascade of virtuoso tennis from the Van Uytvanck racquet, as virtually everything Mladenovic sent to her would be swatted down the line for a clean winner in a flash. Her reward for this top-level performance will be a chance to test her game against one of the best in the game: having eliminated one former winner in Mladenovic, van Uytvanck will now get to face her successor, 2018 champion Petra Kvitova in the second round.
"She's a champion - and for me she's an inspiration," said Van Uytvanck of the Czech former World No.2. "I've never played her - I hope I can enjoy myself and play the best I can. If it can be like today, that would be good, but I know she's going to put a lot of pressure on me. I don't have anything to lose, so let's try to enjoy this moment!"