NEW YORK, NY, USA - In one of the most intensely contested matches of the US Open so far, No.23 seed Yulia Putintseva delivered a masterclass of tactics and battling spirit to reach her maiden US Open quarterfinal, upsetting No.8 seed Petra Martic 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 in two hours and 37 minutes.
"Before the third set, I said to myself, 'Whatever happens, you just make it difficult for her. You're not going to do any mistakes. You're going to move her around the court as much as possible and just do your best point by point.' That's what help me a lot today, this mindset," Putintseva explained after the match.
Putintseva, the first Kazakh to reach the fourth round in Flushing Meadows since Yaroslava Shvedova in 2016, becomes the first player from her country ever to make the last eight of the US Open, and adds a third major quarterfinal, and first off clay, to her two Roland Garros runs in 2016 and 2018. In a first career meeting with Martic - who had also never progressed beyond the US Open fourth round - Putintseva varied her spins, used slice intelligently and wheeled out a series of perfectly executed dropshots to first dominate and ultimately emerge on top of a series of mini-marathons.
It was a match that had it all: riveting extended rallies, momentum shifts, attempted comebacks, shotmaking that ran the full gamut of spins and angles, and above all tremendous passion. Both players finished with positive ratios of winners to unforced errors, Martic tallying 40 of the former to 39 of the latter and Putintseva 26 to 25 respectively.
Through a flawless first five games, the 2019 Nurnberg champion played every shot with intent. Standing well back to deal with Martic's heavy kick serve, Putintseva used heavy topspin to take control of rallies and short, biting slice to flummox her opponent - often within the same point. Martic, slow to react to Putintseva's switch-ups, would lapse into error all too often in response, committing 16 in the first set to just eight winners.
"I had a very good beginning of the match. I think Petra wasn't ready for me to move really quick and not give any free shots. I was there from the beginning."
Trailing 0-5 and having dropped serve twice, Martic belatedly began to open her shoulders and swing freely - making the business end of the set a much more tightly contested passage of play. Putintseva, who slipped over on game point as Martic held to get on the board, would fail to serve out the set in the subsequent game, with her touch on the dropshot abandoning her.
As the Croat cleaned up her mistakes, Putintseva began to fall back in baseline exchanges, with her shots losing their depth and allowing Martic to dominate. The tension from both was palpable, as evidenced by the simultaneous exhortations - one of anguish, one of relief - as Putintseva sped up the court to flick away a counterdrop to reach her first set point. The opening act was still far from over, though: in an edge-of-seat game, the 25-year-old would need four set points before a service winner finally laid it to rest.
Martic mows through Set # ✌️ pic.twitter.com/hJTHAjLPAD— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 6, 2020
Though the first-set deficit had ultimately been too much for Martic to make up, the Roland Garros quarterfinalist's raised level set the scene for a brilliantly contested second set, full of drawn-out games and increasingly lengthy rallies in which both deployed their full repertoire in creative attempts to out-manoeuvre the other.
Putintseva, back in both full flow and full voice, would have three points to break Martic immediately, only for the 2019 Istanbul champion to hold with a one-two punch after three deuces. Three games later, it was Putintseva's turn to pass the pressure test, scampering all over the court to resist Martic's power, surviving a break point and holding after four deuces.
But a titanic six-deuce struggle at 2-2 would be Martic's long-awaited breakthrough. As both players utilized every inch of the court, the Dubai and Palermo semifinalist managed to conjure up a booming backhand winner down the line and then a delightfully delicate volley to move up 4-2.
That game would be the set's climax: following a medical timeout for her back, Putintseva mustered little resistance on resumption as Martic rattled through eight out of 10 points to level at a set all.
However, Putintseva is rarely subdued for long, and the World No.35 was back to her fiery best as the decider got under way. Now, she was ready not only to take control with careful point construction but to unleash high-risk power when she saw the opportunity - and it paid off. A pair of fierce forehands paved the way to an immediate break, and a perfectly placed winner that landed in the corner consolidated her lead.
Now seriously surging, Putintseva took a stranglehold on the set by casually ending a lung-busting 26-shot rally with a clean dropshot winner, and sealed a 4-0 lead with a first rare ace. But as in the first set, Martic would prove resilient when seemingly down and out, while despite her intensity, Putintseva faltered.
Martic, battling another plethora of Putintseva dropshots, tightened up her play behind her serve - and, serving for the match, it was suddenly the lower-ranked player, hitherto watertight, ending rallies with errors. But having reduced the deficit from 5-1 to 5-4, Martic required a medical timeout for her foot - and when resuming play, it was her own momentum that had been broken. Stepping up to serve for the win, Putintseva had settled once more - and three consecutive backhand errors from Martic saw her over the line.
"I have a really good solid belief every tournament I play I really hope and putting in the mindset that I can go far. So if someone would told me [I'd be in the quarterfinals], I would say, 'Okay, good. I have to work hard, of course, but thanks a lot for saying that!'"
Next up for Putintseva will be a match with a maiden Grand Slam semifinal on the line for both players, as she takes on the in-form No.28 seed Jennifer Brady - against whom she is yet to lose a set in two past encounters.
"She's a really good player, even though we played a long time ago, I think two, three years ago, she was already, like, having a good game style, moving a lot and taking forehand, big serve. I think I just need to focus on my game and prepare for a good match."