STRASBOURG, France - No.2 seed Elina Svitolina had to overcome a spirited challenge from Magda Linette in her opening match at the Internationaux de Strasbourg, eking out a tight first set and coming from a double break down in the second before progressing to the quarterfinals 7-6(0), 7-5 in one hour and 58 minutes.
Svitolina, who reached the Rome quarterfinals last week in her first tournament since the Tour's resumption, struggled with both a surging opponent and her own fluctuating level. The former WTA Finals champion was two points away from losing the first set and faced set point as Linette served for the second, but each time found some of her sharpest tennis to deny the Polish No.1 at the business end of both sets.
"It definitely was not easy," said Svitolina afterwards. "She was fighting back, she was trying to produce a good level; I was up and down. It's not easy to come from another tournament with different balls, different conditions. I was trying just to fight and in the end I was lucky I finished in two sets."
The World No.5 is adept at playing the scoreboard well, though, and has an instinct for which points demand different approaches. "Definitely when you are down and you don't want to lose a set, you are more aware of what's going on," she said. "You are trying to be 100% focused and not give easy points to your opponents. So you are slightly more focused - if you do this you are rewarded if you get back into the set. If you don't, well, you lose the set! So it's a tricky situation. But when I was down I was playing quite good, so it was important for me to stay in the match."
Svitolina was actually the sharper player out of the blocks, constructing points smartly and executing efficiently to take a 3-1 lead, with a finely crafted dropshot-lob-forehand triple combination providing a particular early highlight. But during an absorbing middle section of the first set, it was Linette, seeking her first win over a Top 10 player at the 12th attempt, who was able to showcase the improvements she has made in her game over the past two years as the World No.36 battled her way slowly but surely back into the set.
Linette's backhand proved a key shot, garnering her a series of smoothly struck winners, but the 28-year-old also proved rock-solid in coming out on top of a number of lengthy tussles, holding for 2-3 after two deuces and breaking back for 3-3, sealing that game in style with a volley and a dropshot on the last two points. Even when Svitolina broke to love again, Linette reprised the feat, levelling at 4-4 after another three deuces.
At this point, it was Linette who looked the stronger player, rattling off winner after winner and hitting her spots on serve with ease. But with Svitolina on the ropes serving at 5-6, 15-30, it was the former WTA Finals champion who raised her level.
Reasserting her authority off the ground and at net, Svitolina was razor-sharp in forcing the tiebreak, and watertight therein; instead, it was Linette whose fortitude gave way, coughing up five unforced errors and a fourth double fault en route to an unfortunate whitewash as Svitolina reeled off the final 10 points of the set.
To Linette's credit, the Hua Hin champion was quick to shake off the disappointment. A carelessly error-strewn service game from Svitolina reopened the door for Linette, who consolidated with aplomb and then, demonstrating her strength in long deuce games again, conjured up a series of magnificent dropshots to capture the double break for 4-1.
But Svitolina's tenacity has been one of her signature strengths at the very top of the game, and the Ukrainian illustrated this as she slowly but surely began chipping away at Linette's lead. Through the subsequent passage of play, there was no specific turning point; instead, Svitolina simply clung on through a series of tight games, varying her strategy as she probed Linette's weaknesses.
The Monterrey champion took advantage of Linette's errant backhand to break back for 2-4, and then saved a break point to hold for 3-4 with a fizzing forehand down the line. A point to capture the Linette serve and level at 4-4 went begging as Svitolina netted a forehand, but her resistance was only growing stronger in increasingly extended rallies.
Serving for the set, Linette squandered a set point after one such exchange by netting a forehand - and it was then that the momentum finally, irrevocably shifted towards Svitolina. The two-time major semifinalist wasted no time to hammer a forehand winner down the line to break back - and then proved adept at creating her own luck as she stormed through the last two games.
A net cord set Svitolina up for a pinpoint lob to hold for 6-5, and then at 30-30 in the next game Linette netted a simple forehand putaway. Svitolina would only need one match point opportunity, and seized it with one of her best defence-to-offence turnarounds of the day, haring across the court to nail a backhand winner behind her opponent, setting up a quarterfinal showdown against Jil Teichmann.