ROME, Italy -- Two-time champion Elina Svitolina of Ukraine made a triumphant return to tour competition on Wednesday, as she emerged victorious in her first post-hiatus match with a 6-3, 7-6(4) win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia.
Svitolina, who won back-to-back titles in Rome in 2017 and 2018, had not played a WTA match since she won the Monterrey title over Marie Bouzkova the week prior to the professional tennis shutdown, having received a first-round bye this week.
"For sure, it was different, because I probably had the longest preparation ever for clay courts," Svitolina said in her post-match press conference. "To be fair, I feel quite comfortable, or at least I’m giving myself a good chance to move better."
The No.4 seed looked to be in fighting form as she earned a one-hour and 45-minute victory over World No.36 Pavlyuchenkova, twice coming back from a break down in a grueling 72-minute second set. Overall Svitolina saved seven of the 10 break points she faced in the clash.
Pavlyuchenkova actually came into the match having won three of their four previous encounters, as the Russian sought her third Top 10 win of the season. However, the pair had not faced off since 2017, and it was Svitolina who prevailed at one of her most successful venues.
"I was very happy that I was on the court and able to play," Svitolina told the media. "I played a good match, I think Anastasia was fighting really good, so I had to produce and finish really strong."
"For sure it was not easy, I had the chances to close the match earlier in the second set," Svitolina added. "It was important for me to re-focus and to fight, and to finish it in two sets is really great."
In the round of 16, Svitolina will face the winner of Thursday’s match between No.14 seed Anett Kontaveit of Estonia and two-time finalist Svetlana Kuznetsova of Russia.
After a series of routine holds by both players, it was Svitolina who cracked open the first set, using her patented combination of pinpoint groundstrokes and unparalleled defense to garner a break for a 4-2 lead. The Ukrainian had to stare down a break point in the next game, but Pavlyuchenkova fired a backhand long on her chance before Svitolina gritted out a hold for 5-2.
Pavlyuchenkova romped to a love hold, with two aces, to move to 5-3, and the Russian slammed a winning overhead to claim a 0-30 start in the next game. However, Svitolina was able to draw errors from the Russian and slide to set point. On that occasion, the Russian hit a volley into the net, ceding the one-set lead to Svitolina.
A cavalcade of service breaks in the second set started in Pavlyuchenkova’s favor, as the Russian took an early 2-0 lead after Svitolina double faulted on the fourth break point of the protracted game. Svitolina romped to a quick break to get back on serve at 3-2, but Pavlyuchenkova once again reclaimed her advantage after a break for 4-2.
The Russian led 40-0 in the next game, but on the next point Svitolina used a lob followed by a dropshot winner to unleash a sudden run of five straight points, stealing that game and getting back on serve again at 4-3. A second successive break fell Svitolina’s way, as she led 5-4 and served for the match.
Svitolina was unable to close in that game, though, as she missed two match points with a long backhand error and a double fault respectively. After another error by the Ukrainian on the third break point of the game, Pavlyuchenkova was back level at 5-5, and following two more games, the pair moved into a tiebreak to decide the second set.
From 3-3 in the tiebreak, Svitolina pulled out all the stops. The fourth seed bravely followed a defensive lob into the forecourt to put away the forehand and lead 4-3. At 5-4, the Ukrainian fired a fantastic forehand winner down the line to hold a third match point, and she ended the match divinely with a winning dropshot to grit out the long second set, and the match.