LYON, France - No.1 seed Sofia Kenin pulled off a remarkable escape to reach the quarterfinals of the Open 6ème Sens - Métropole de Lyon, coming from a set and 3-5 down and saving one match point to survive surging qualifier Jaqueline Cristian 6-7(5), 7-5, 6-4 in two hours and 31 minutes.
The pair, both 21 years old and just five months apart in age, were erstwhile junior peers, where both excelled - as well as former doubles partners, reaching the 2018 Strasbourg quarterfinals together. But their careers have diverged at professional level: champion of the prestigious Les Petits As U14 tournament in 2012, Cristian had posted only two WTA main draw wins prior to this week, both as a wildcard in her home tournament of Bucharest, and had not faced a Top 30 opponent until today.
Nonetheless, the Romanian has been on a hot streak lately: Cristian came into today with 11 wins in her last 12 matches ever since scoring her first Top 50 scalp in Fed Cup Qualifier action a month ago over Veronika Kudermetova, and had dropped just 10 games over three previous matches this week in Lyon. Though first blood went to Kenin, who broke off the bat by hammering a return down the line, Cristian would swiftly prove she could go toe-to-toe with the Australian Open champion, with both players racking up 32 winners each - and indeed Cristian keeping her unforced error count lower, with 39 to Kenin's uncharacteristic 52.
Racking up free points courtesy of a lethal first serve that garnered her 11 aces in total, the World No.174's searing groundstrokes were also a growing threat; though Kenin staved off three break points in the sixth game, the eighth saw Cristian take control, swinging freely to nail consecutive backhand winners - one crosscourt, the next down the line - to level the set at 4-4.
Up 30-0 in the next game and surging, Cristian seemed to have missed her opportunity when she misjudged a Kenin return that landed on the baseline, subsequently conceding her serve again - but, undeterred, the Trnava ITF W25 champion upped the ante as Kenin served for the set, this time unleashing on her forehand side. Cristian would save a set point as a deep return forced a Kenin error - before a double fault and wide backhand from the World No.5 levelled the score once more at 5-5.
Impressively, Cristian would hold her nerve through a tense tiebreak dominated by unreturnable serves from both players. At its climax, it was the Kenin forehand which faltered on two key points - and though stellar defence-to-offence from the Mallorca and Guangzhou champion saved one set point, a no-holds-barred backhand winner saw Cristian over the line in style.
"She was playing with no pressure," observed Kenin afterwards. "She qualified, so I knew she would come out playing some really good tennis. Obviously I didn't feel my game that well - I was pretty frustrated the whole match, I couldn't find my rhythm, but I just tried to fight through. I got the win - it's a relief and I'm happy."
There would be no immediate letdown from the lower-ranked player in the second set as, buoyed with confidence, Cristian pressed home her advantage. Indeed, she was able to raise her level to match Kenin's as the Toronto and Cincinnati semifinalist sought to turn the match around: Cristian's serve would bail her out of the fourth game as she sent down three aces en route to fending off three break points, and she would be immediately rewarded as Kenin's backhand went awry to hand the break lead over in the next.
Riding her purple patch to a 5-3 lead, Cristian surged to the very brink of victory as an error-strewn Kenin fell match point down serving to stay in the match. But Kenin survived it after finishing a marvellous rally with a drive volley - and, rejuvenated, brought her most dogged defence and fighting spirit to bear as she clambered back into contention.
The subsequent passage of play was intense and absorbing - but once Cristian had failed to serve out the win, finishing that game with a double fault, the pendulum swung firmly back towards the younger, but more experienced, player. An emphatic forehand putaway fended off another break point at 5-5 before Kenin held with a fourth ace; striking the ball from line to line, the American's counterpunching was at its zenith - as was her focus in staying on top of points once she was on the front foot. Another mighty tussle as Cristian battled to stay in the set would also eventually go Kenin's way, the top seed seizing her fourth set point with a deep return that drew a netted forehand from her opponent.
To Cristian's credit, she was able to shake off the disappointment of having a career-best victory snatched from under her nose to continue the compelling standard of play into the decider. Indeed, once both players had survived break points against them in the first two games of the third set, they would settle into a relatively comfortable groove on serve, posting seven straight holds as the match reached its dénouement.
Serving down 3-4, though, it was Cristian who blinked: three unforced errors gifted a love break to Kenin at the most inopportune time. Serving for the match, Kenin started with a couple of magic touches - a pinpoint lob and a brilliant running forehand winner reminiscent of Jennifer Capriati - but a valiant Cristian refused to lie down, threading a backhand pass to roar back.
The qualifier could not sustain that momentum on serve, though. Three errant forehands let her down badly, and a relieved Kenin would finally get over the line on her second match point, attacking a Cristian second serve and putting away the short forehand. Up next for Kenin in the quarterfinals will be another big hitter in the form of the resurgent Oceane Dodin, who received a walkover from Jil Teichmann due to the No.6 seed's right ankle injury.