PRAGUE, Czech Republic - No.2 seed Petra Martic bounced back from disappointment at the weekend to open her Prague Open campaign by edging Varvara Gracheva 7-6(2), 6-3 in one hour and 50 minutes.
The Croat had struggled with injury during her semifinal defeat to Anett Kontaveit in Palermo on Saturday, and took another medical timeout between sets today, but ultimately delivered a focused performance to navigate scoreboard fluctuations and a dangerous young opponent, striking 20 winners to 19 unforced errors and maintaining a 100% success rate behind her dropshots, taking all nine of those rallies.
"Not an easy one, especially the first set," assessed Martic afterwards. "Unfortunately couldn't serve it out, but I'm happy I brought my level up in the tiebreak where it mattered." Her physical state, she said, was more of a question of maintenance than anything serious: "It's definitely not ideal - I have some aches here and there, the body is still adjusting to matches and playing one after another - but I think it's normal and I hope I can maintain it to last this tournament."
Initially, Martic outclassed the World No.101 with a rock-solid start, moving the ball around the court smoothly and sending down a number of effective kick serves. By contrast, Gracheva - who fell in Palermo qualifying last week, and was competing in just the fourth WTA main draw of her career - was misfiring, particularly on her backhand wing, from which three errors coughed up the first break of the set in the third game.
Though struggling to keep up with Martic off the ground, the Russian nonetheless kept herself in touch on the scoreboard with strong serving - Gracheva landed 80% of her first serves in the first set - and this paid off when, serving at 3-5, she belatedly found her radar with her powerful groundstrokes. Constructing points with patient power and unhesitatingly moving forward to finish them with overheads, the 20-year-old began to show some of the form that rocketed her from World No.447 to World No.105 with a 70-26 win-loss record over the course of 2019.
"She's a tough one," said an impressed Martic. "She likes to grind, she likes to counter - if you give her pace without hurting her, it usually puts you in trouble. I knew what to expect, I knew it was not gonna be easy."
Gracheva's efforts seemed to have paid off when Martic, serving for the set, threw in her first loose game of the day to get broken to love. But the experienced Martic quickly righted the ship. Forced to pivot within minutes from serving out the set to serving to stay in it, the 29-year-old cleaned up her errors, wheeled out another pair of stellar dropshots and forced a tiebreak - which she proceeded to dominate as Gracheva reverted to her initial impatience, leaking five unforced errors out of nine points.
Despite needing an off-court medical timeout between sets, Martic was able to sustain her momentum as the second act got under way, leaping out to a 3-0 lead courtesy of another series of casually brilliant dropshots and sharp smashes. By contrast, two double faults in the second game left Gracheva with an uphill battle.
The set wouldn't be all smooth sailing: Martic squandered triple game point serving for a 4-1 lead and Gracheva, sensing that the door was ajar again, took full advantage, breaking back after four deuces thanks to a dead net cord. But the youngster - who had just cracked the Top 100 for the first time in February prior to the tour's COVID-19 pause - could not fully wrest the momentum back, and made too many mistakes when serving to level the score - eventually tallying 29 unforced errors to 21 winners. Yet another dropshot carved out another break point for Martic, who immediately took it for 4-2 as a Gracheva forehand went long.
"I just tried to stay calm and not be too critical," said Martic about regaining her focus after letting leads slip in each set. "Once the pressure rises, it comes automatically. It happened a few times today and also last week so that's something I have to work on - I need to be more consistent throughout the match."
This time, the Roland Garros quarterfinalist's lead would be safe. Martic would concede just two more points behind her delivery, taking her first match point with a coolly executed kick serve and forehand one-two punch to set up a second-round Czech clash against either Kristyna Pliskova or 15-year-old WTA debutante Linda Fruhvirtova.