STRASBOURG, France - Elena Rybakina was given a tough workout by qualifier Greet Minnen in the first round of the Internationaux de Strasbourg before the No.5 seed moved through 7-5, 6-4 in one hour and 31 minutes.
Rybakina, who had previously defeated Minnen 6-3, 6-4 in the second round of the Australian Open this January, trailed by a break through much of the opening act and needed to save a set point as the Belgian served for it, then had to stave off a second-set comeback in order to close out the win.
"I didn't really think about the score, because I had so many ups and downs during the match," said Rybakina afterwards. "I was rushing a bit, so I'm just happy I won today. I can't say it was my best tennis, but I played much better in the second set than in the first - but still, I was up then she came back. Overall, it was a difficult match."
Three days ago, Rybakina had served 12 double faults during her third-round loss to Yulia Putintseva in the third round of Rome, and had not entirely managed to shake them off today. One brought up a break point as soon as the third game, and though the Kazakh found better serves to escape there, two games later another pair of them - with a delicately sliced Minnen pass in between them - sealed the first break of the match for the World No.110.
Minnen, who had snapped a seven-match losing streak with her qualifying win yesterday over Michaela Bayerlova, impressed with her smooth all-court game - but as the set neared its business end, her execution began to get more complicated. The 23-year-old, seeking her first victory over a Top 20 player, needed six game points to hold in the eighth game after squandering the first three by missing a volley into the open court and double faulting twice; but on the other side of the net, a low-intensity Rybakina was unable to take her chances either, and Minnen would ultimately find some strong serves to move up 5-3.
That game would foreshadow her next service game, though. Having made her way to set point courtesy of two of her best winners of the day, a flicked forehand pass off a dropshot and a sturdy drive volley, Minnen sent a backhand into the tramlines to pass up the opportunity. A volley chase and carefully judged pass from Rybakina on break point later, and the Hobart champion had levelled the scoreline.
The crucial game concluded with a case study in contrasting drive volleys: at deuce, an overly cautious Minnen tapped one back to Rybakina, who belted a winner crosscourt accordingly - and then buried her own drive volley with some authority to hold for 6-5. Bolstered, the 21-year-old found her highest gear of the day to break for the set, showcasing stellar all-round play by conjuring up winners on the pass, the volley and, on set point, an exquisite dropshot.
Rybakina's higher intensity continued as the quality rose in the second set, and the World No.18 found a series of searing returns to break for a 4-2 lead. But she had not quite rid herself of her double faults, tallying six for the day, and Minnen mounted a valiant fightback, breaking back with an inside-in forehand winner and then showing off terrific reflexes to deal with an unexpected net cord and level at 4-4.
Throughout the match, Rybakina's ability to ride the ebbs and flows of the scoreboard with her customary poker face had been one of her strengths, and this proved valuable again at another business end of a set. Though her backhand had been far the more reliable wing overall, Rybakina landed key forehand blows to hold for 5-4 and then to gain a match point opportunity in Minnen's next service game - swiftly converted as the lower-ranked player netted a forehand.
Next up for Rybakina as she bids to reach her first quarterfinal since the Tour's resumption will be either Alizé Cornet or Polona Hercog. Having reached four finals in January and February, she does not yet feel she has found that groove again, but is hopeful of doing so: "I'm not in the same form," she admitted afterwards. "I'm just trying to play as many matches as I can. But it's getting better with every match, so I think I can find my rhythm."