ROME, Italy - Already renowned for her rollercoaster scorelines and never-say-die spirit, Yulia Putintseva's week at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia is only adding to her reputation after she pulled off a remarkable comeback to defeat No.10 seed Elena Rybakina 4-6, 7-6(3), 6-2 in an all-Kazakh third-round derby over two hours and 39 minutes.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Putintseva had needed exactly three hours to triumph 6-3, 6-7(2), 6-4 over No.8 seed Petra Martic for the second time in two weeks, having squandered a match point for a 6-3, 6-1 victory. Today, it was her turn to make the unlikely comeback, having faced a point to fall a set and 1-5 down to her higher-ranked compatriot and then needing to overturn a 2-5 second-set deficit after being two points from defeat on three occasions. Fresh off her third Grand Slam quarterfinal run at the US Open, this marks the World No.30's first ever appearance in the last eight of a Premier 5 event.
"It's good, you know," smiled Putintseva when asked about her reputation. "It's better that someone thinks [that] about you than you stop fighting when you're losing the first set. So yeah, I'm
happy with this quality that I have, that I always fight until the end. I hope that I will do it as well, whenever I play."
The arc of the match was a fascinating study in how clutch tennis can shift from player to player over the course of the match: for the first half of the contest, the superior in that department was undoubtedly Rybakina, who repeatedly pegged Putintseva back as the Kazakh No.2 failed to convert her own numerous opportunities. Inconsistency plagued Rybakina throughout, but only as the match slowly turned was she punished for her 12 double faults and cheap groundstroke errors. By contrast, Putintseva would be unable to take 15 of the first 18 break points she brought up - but would then convert three of her last five to sail through the decider.
Putintseva, who admitted afterwards that she had kept her expectations low following her quick turnaround from the fast US hard courts and had been surprised at how well she had adjusted, was unsure herself as to how she had escaped defeat today. "I don't know, honestly," she told press. "At some point I was just thinking, OK, just play point by point, and whatever happens, if she's playing too good, well done, there is nothing you can do. But I still was trying to fight, trying to find my rhythm, and I think I started play a little bit deeper in the middle of the second set. I think she found it a little bit uncomfortable, so that's when I think the match changed."
As for the seven hours and 17 minutes the 2019 Nurnberg champion has spent on court this week, she is unconcerned. "When you get this winning spirit... you actually don't feel that much tired," she pointed out. "If you lose these kind of tough matches, you feel more tired. When you win those, you feel more energy. You want to jump, you want to do more, you want to play more. So it's tired, but it's good tiredness, I would say."
A tightly contested first set was characterized by a sequence of unpredictable momentum shifts within almost every game: four times the server would fall behind 0-40, but on three of those occasions the game would only be decided after going to deuce.
Playing the comeback role more often than not was Rybakina, who faced triple break point three times (and double break point once) in the opening act. The 21-year-old was slow to get going in comparison to Putintseva, whose dropshot and serve were in fine working order as she rattled off eight of the first 10 points.
But despite Rybakina's sometimes ragged execution on the serve and forehand, she was nonetheless able to pull her game together at key moments. Indeed, it was those same two shots that got her out of trouble in the fifth game of the match, fending off three points to go down a double break to instead narrow the deficit to 2-3 - setting the pattern for the first set-and-a-half, during which Rybakina's trust in her aggressive game and ability to find the court when it mattered proved crucial.
So, too, was the Hobart champion's willingness to bypass the notorious Putintseva defence by coming forwards. Winning drive volleys up break point captured the next two Putintseva service games and, at 4-4, saved the first of two more break points en route to a hold for 5-4 - the first time Rybakina had been ahead on the scoreboard today.
The St. Petersburg and Dubai runner-up was sharp in pressing home this advantage: seeking to level at 5-5, Putintseva went up 30-0 - but a pair of flashy groundstroke winners off each wing and another drive volley later, it was Rybakina who had stolen a set she had been chasing for much of its timeframe.
Despite dropping serve to love at the start of the second set, the Kazakh No.1 cleaned up her game significantly to take what seemed to be a stranglehold of the match. The subsequent passage of play saw Rybakina execute virtually flawless tennis to run off four games in a row as Putintseva's first serve percentage plummeted from 71% to 56%.
But, nearing the finishing line, signs of a plot twist began to develop. A putative backhand winner that would have given Rybakina a 5-1 lead landed inches wide, and Putintseva, needing as little encouragement as ever to dig her heels into a match, essayed a delectable slice winner to make the score 4-2 instead.
The match was teetering on a knife-edge again, but Rybakina still managed to push ahead to a 5-2 lead despite three more double faults and facing another four break points in that game. Surviving that test didn't settle her, though: serving for the match, a ninth double fault hoved into view, and this time Rybakina finally faltered with her back against the wall. An errant backhand sealed the break-back for a delighted Putintseva - and the contest's turn was all but complete.
The ensuing tiebreak saw Rybakina's groundstrokes lose their range almost completely: four of the first five points ended in errors off her hitherto more reliable backhand wing, and on two of the last three it was her forehand going awry.
A rejuvenated Putintseva would dominate the deciding set. Ratcheting her first serve percentage back up to 75%, the 25-year-old conceded just four points behind her delivery in the final act while piling the pressure on the flagging Rybakina with watertight, error-free tennis, testing her younger compatriot with both heavy topspin and her trademark dropshots.
By the end of the match, even the net play that had saved Rybakina so often was failing her: serving to stay alive, consecutive volley errors on the last two points sealed victory for the pumped-up Putintseva, whose reward is a quarterfinal date with No.1 seed Simona Halep.