PARIS, France - World No.4 Karolina Pliskova shook off a rising star in Egyptian qualifier Mayar Sherif, surviving the qualifier, 6-7(9), 6-2, 6-4 to pass the first hurdle at Roland Garros.
"Let's not talk about my level," Pliskova said after the match. "I think there is big room for improvement, but it is what it is and I'm in the next round, which counts."
The No.2 seed missed out on eight set point opportunities in the opening salvo but recovered in stellar fashion, serving out the contest after two hours and 15 minutes on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
Semifinalist in Paris three years ago, Pliskova came within one match of defending her Internazionali BNL d'Italia title before a left thigh injury forced her to retire after a set against fellow former World No.1 Simona Halep.
"I was not really thinking about it at all," she said of the injury. "It's not 100%, but it's okay. I think nobody is really 100% here."
While Pliskova, a 2016 US Open runner-up, was making her 33rd Grand Slam appearance, Sherif was in the midst of a historic run, having become the first Egyptian woman to qualify for a Grand Slam main draw. Making her WTA main draw debut at the Prague Open back in August, the Pepperdine University graduate dropped just 14 games through last week's qualifying tournament to take on the three-time WTA Ace Leader.
"I think in these conditions it's tougher than normally or even on hardcourts. It was super wet, raining half of the match. It wasn't easy to kill a ball, and especially if everything jumps this high.
"I think she was playing very smart today. Of course she had a lot of confidence just winning three matches from qualies. She had nothing to lose. I think she was playing good tennis, using the dropshot and using the forehand quite well, and the second-serve kick I think was working because, as I said, the court was kind of slow together with the balls."
The pair traded perfunctory service holds through the first nine games before things began to heat up as the Czech powerhouse closed in on the opening set, engineering the first break points on the Sherif serve that doubled as set points. Armed with an impressive kick serve and heavy forehand, Sherif saved all three and turned the tables on Pliskova to find herself serving for the set.
Undaunted, Pliskova stepped in to strike a pair of winners and force a tie-break, and forced the Egyptian out of position to grab the first mini-break at the change of ends. A netted backhand brought the No.2 seed three more set points, but Sherif evened proceedings as Pliskova threw in an ill-timed fifth double fault.
The qualifier ultimately saved two more set points - for a total of eight - and squeaked out the Sudden Death at her second opportunity when her higher-ranked opposition missed an overhead long.
In search of her first Grand Slam quarterfinal since shocking 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams at the 2019 Australian Open, Pliskova began the second set on more confident footing, shaking up an early exchange of breaks with a love service hold and was soon ahead 5-1 behind 10 winners to just two from Sherif.
"I think I relaxed a little bit in the second set, and of course she was just playing an ugly game. There was not much room or not many points where I would feel really great, but I was just able to find a little bit better level than in the first set."
Though the Egyptian ended the run of games against her with a hold of her own, Pliskova was unmoved, blasting a backhand winner to earn a slew of set points, only needing one this time to level up the match.
"Never giving up is the only thing which I can do no matter how it goes, because there is always a chance, especially against these players. I think for them it's really tough to close the match. Maybe they can play great two sets but three sets is quite tough."
Sherif was first to face break point in the deciding set, and was drawn into a marathon seventh game that saw her fall behind four more as Pliskova fought to gain the advantage. After seven deuces and five unconverted break point chances, the former World No.1 attacked the net with aplomb to wrest control from her wily opposition and rode the subsequent momentum into a 5-3 lead.
Losing just two points in her final three service games, Pliskova steadied her signature weapon to convert her second match point and seal her spot in the second round.
It was a spectacular recovery from the former World No.1, who ended the match with 45 winners to 46 unforced errors (more than half of which came in the first set), and converted five of 15 break point opportunities while winning nearly 80% of points played behind her first serve.
While Sherif put on a memorable display, just two breaks of the Pliskova serve in the first set weren't enough to complete the upset, hitting 22 winners to 28 unforced errors.
Awaiting next is 2017 champion Jelena Ostapenko, who opened play on Court 9 with an emphatic win - her first on the terre battue since winning her maiden major title here three years ago - over tricky American Madison Brengle.
"With Jelena, we had some good matches, some strange matches. I think she's a lot up and down but for sure she can just play well. From the baseline she can really hit the ball. She can make a lot of winners, but also a lot of mistakes.
"Let's see which conditions we will have on Thursday. Let's see how my level will be."
The pair have played their share of epic matches in the past, most recently at the China Open last fall, where the Latvian emerged victorious after three grueling sets. Their last clay court clash was a similarly bruising affair, one Pliskova secured en route to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix title.