OSTRAVA, Czech Republic - No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka pulled off a dramatic comeback from a double break down in the third set against qualifier Coco Gauff in the second round of the J&T Banka Ostrava Open, avenging a marathon loss two months ago to pull through 1-6, 7-5, 7-6(2) in two hours and 13 minutes.
At the same stage of Lexington in August, Gauff had triumphed 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4 in a two-hour, 48-minute epic that remains the longest match of the teenager's professional career to date - and for much of this rematch she seemed likely to reprise it. But Sabalenka, who had initially been comprehensively outplayed, proved the stronger player at the end of the match, storming back from 2-5 down in the decider and ultimately dictating the final-set tiebreak, tallying 30 winners to 44 unforced errors overall and taking advantage of Gauff's serve suddenly shaking in the closing stages.
"I would say today was a really good level compared to last time," said Sabalenka afterwards. "After the last match I knew there were going to be long rallies and short balls, and that I have to step in every time on court, stay aggressive and don't be afraid to come into net. She's a great player, she's so young and she's moving really really well. It's long rallies all the time and it's not easy to make a winner or find a way of finishing the point against her. I mean, she's great. She's 16 and she's playing on this level - I would like to be on this level when I was 16!"
The six-time WTA titlist said that managing her emotions had been key to pulling out the win - and that this is an ongoing process for her. "I keep learning the same lesson," she admitted. "I have to figure out how to work with my emotions. As soon as I shut them down, I play really well. As soon as I focus on every point, I'm in the game. When I'm overthinking about the result or what's going to happen, then I'm in trouble... I'm just on the changeovers trying to think about something good, to recharge. To tell myself after each point, focus on this one, forget about that one. I just keep on saying it to myself and that really helps me. If I lost a point or if I won it, I'm in the moment. I have to work on it a bit more."
For Gauff, a fourth loss in her past four three-set matches was a disappointment that she found hard to take positives from. "I mean, I really don't like losing, so I don't look at it that way," she laughed. Instead, the rising star focused on the lessons she would be learning: "I just need to play a little bit smarter on pressure points, to make my opponent play," Gauff stated. "I feel like I wasn't nervous today - I think I just need to be smarter. Sometimes I have tendencies, when it gets to the end, to rush out of the points when instead I should just put the ball in the court."
A dominant 22-minute opening set saw the American efficiently smother Sabalenka in almost every facet of the game, though. Winning 77% of her first serve points, Gauff dropped just six points behind her own delivery while capturing the Sabalenka serve twice.
Eleven unforced errors to just three winners did not aid Sabalenka's cause - the set began to get away from the Belarusian after a netted smash brought up the first break point of the day in the fourth game, with a backhand over the baseline conceding the break to Gauff. But the 16-year-old, who maintained a watertight ratio of four winners to six unforced errors herself, was impressively adept at reading the higher-ranked player's patterns and blunting her power, pulling off a pair of superb passing shots for a 5-1 double-break lead. A game later, three service winners saw Gauff wrap up the opening act in efficient fashion.
However, a substantial improvement in Sabalenka's form saw the second set take a very different path. The Doha champion pulled her game together, particularly behind serve, racking up 14 winners to 16 unforced errors - making for a passage of play that was evenly matched until its final few points.
Neither player would face a break point through the first 11 games - though this sequence of holds was far from untroubled for either. But both impressed with their ability to pre-empt danger, each digging themselves out of 0-30 holes on two occasions with solid tennis.
With no ground given, the set would come down to who would blink momentarily - and this turned out to be Gauff. The World No.55 had been able to get a foothold in the Sabalenka serve at 5-5, but netted a forehand at deuce - and as if suffering the after-effects of that miss on a key point, it was that wing that broke down in the subsequent game. Having posted nine straight holds without facing a break point, Gauff would concede her serve for the first time - and with it the set - with consecutive forehand errors.
Although it had been ill-timed, Gauff's dip had been relatively minor - and the 2019 Linz champion ensured it would be brief as the decider got under way. By contrast, Sabalenka allowed looseness to creep back into her groundstrokes: three unforced errors and a Gauff return winner in the first game put the latter back in the driver's seat, and the American maintained the pressure, capturing a 3-0 double-break lead as Sabalenka sent a backhand over the baseline.
Channeling her frustration into her tennis, the World No.12 managed to get one of the breaks back in style, pulling off a pair of breathtaking backhands to do so - but three double faults in the seventh game almost undid this hard work. Gauff, presented with these gifts, duly converted with a pinpoint lob to regain the double break for 5-2.
It was on the brink of victory that the youngster's solidity began to show cracks, though. Serving for the match, Gauff offered up her tamest game of the day with three cheap unforced errors and a double fault. The latter have plagued her in recent tournaments, but Gauff had appeared to have them under control today, committing only two in her first 13 service games. Yet from here on in, there would be one in each subsequent game - including one at the closest point she would get to victory, serving at 5-4, 30-30.
Quick to sense that the door was still ajar, Sabalenka blazed through the opening with her usual swashbuckling aggression. Indeed, the 22-year-old began to excel in all areas of the game as she eroded Gauff's lead: her trademark power was allied with greater accuracy as she slammed a drive volley away to level at 5-5, but she would also show off her best touch of the day on counterdrops and even out-defend the speedy youngster in some exchanges.
Sabalenka would also display stellar mental fortitude to ensure that she would complete the comeback. At 6-5, in the lead for the first time, the Adelaide and Strasbourg semifinalist appeared to have squandered a golden opportunity: with an open court to aim for, she sent a forehand volley that would have brought up double match point into the tramlines, and Gauff subsequently forced the tiebreak. But therein, it was the qualifier who was unable to find the court: Sabalenka leapt out to a quick 4-0 lead, with Gauff committing her sixth double fault of the day, and a few points later closed out a superb win with her fourth ace down the tee.