On Ascension Day, Iga Swiatek elevated her game at the Internazionali BNL d'Italia. The No.15 seed saved two match points to overhaul Barbora Krejcikova 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-5 in two hours and 50 minutes and reach her second quarterfinal of the season.
It was the first time Swiatek had won after facing match points in a WTA main draw, and the first time anywhere since saving three to beat Bernarda Pera 2-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 in 2019 Birmingham qualifying.
Earlier, Coco Gauff ended Madrid champion Aryna Sabalenka's seven-match winning streak 7-5, 6-3 to make her fourth quarterfinal of 2021, and second at 1000 level. The result is Gauff's third Top 10 victory and second win over a Top 5 player, following her upset of Naomi Osaka at the 2020 Australian Open. The teenager will have the opportunity to score another when she faces World No.1 Ashleigh Barty for the first time in the last eight.
Swiatek and Krejcikova both took some time to find any form in windy conditions. An arduous first set saw the pair combine for 45 unforced errors (20 from Krejcikova and 25 from Swiatek) and just 13 winners. Eight of the nine games went to deuce, and six were breaks of serve.
There was little momentum or accuracy from either side, and despite Swiatek resorting to high moonballs in its closing stages, the Pole ceded it with consecutive forehand mistakes.
Down 0-2 in the second set, the Roland Garros champion belatedly found her range. A forehand winner sealed the break back, and over the course of the set a sequence of superb dropshots and measured aggression off the ground enabled Swiatek to maintain her foothold in the match.
Strong serving from Krejcikova garnered the Czech some comfortable holds, and when Swiatek's dropshot radar went awry again down 5-6, she had the opportunity to close out a second seeded upset in a row. But Swiatek swatted both match points away with clutch serves, and played with panache to take control of the ensuing tiebreak. Facing set point, Krejcikova coughed up her sixth double fault of the day.
The pattern of comfortable holds continued throughout most of the decider as both players found much-improved form. Swiatek continued to go to the dropshot well - a tactic that nearly got her into trouble at 3-3, when she had to save three break points, but ultimately also got her out of it after it sealed the hold.
At 5-5, 30-30, the Swiatek dropshot also won her that crucial point, incurring vocal frustration from Krejcikova. A flurry of ill-timed unforced errors followed from the World No.40, as well as some superb Swiatek net play to bring up triple match point of her own. On the second, Krejcikova sent a forehand into the net.
"I just had a tough day mentally," said Swiatek afterwards. "It was hard for me to be positive. I'm really happy I could win that, I could turn the score around. Usually in this situation I was the kind of person that was kind of giving up mentally. Today, even though I wasn't feeling completely perfect on court, I had some issues as well, I could manage with everything and just win points."
Swiatek was particularly proud of her ability to find tactical solutions on court despite her struggles.
"I was feeling a lot of emotions because it's impossible not to," she said. "I had this barrier in my mind... I was trying to find a solution because I didn't want to get more and more angry... Overall it wasn't fun. It was kind of brutal for me.
"I had fun when I played dropshots because today I felt them really good. I asked myself a question, what would annoy me in that situation, so I tried to do that. So, yeah, sometimes it didn't look pretty, but I'm happy that I could do that. One year ago I wouldn't even come up with a solution like that. That's a progress."
Gauff and Sabalenka had previously split two rollercoaster encounters. Both took place last year, with Gauff winning 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-4 in Lexington and Sabalenka 1-6, 7-5, 7-6(2) in Ostrava.
The Belarusian was coming off a strong run of form on clay, having reached the Stuttgart final and followed it with the Madrid title last week. But she was less sharp on the slower clay of Rome, committing 36 unforced errors to 22 winners and landing only 53% of her first serves.
A flurry of backhand errors gifted Gauff a break off the bat, and the American World No.35 was the more solid player throughout the match. A rare lapse saw Sabalenka break back for 4-4, but Gauff continued to compete grittily to regain the advantage for 6-5.
Thereafter, Gauff was watertight on serve, dropping just four more points behind her delivery over the rest of the match.
Midway through the second set, she began pressuring Sabalenka's service games. The World No.4 escaped two break points to hold for 3-2, but her next two ended in an identical manner: a double fault to bring up break point, and a netted backhand to seal it for Gauff.
The contest had been a satisfying one for Gauff, who rated her performance a "10 out of 10".
"It's one of those matches that for me as a fan, if I were to be able to watch myself play, that would be a match that I would want to watch," she said. "Because you know we're going to bring everything we have from the beginning to the end. She brings the intensity on the court from the first point. I have to make sure that I manage that and bring even more intensity. I think you feel it the whole match."
In general, Gauff is also ensuring that she treats her matches as positive experiences.
"Now I really am trying to enjoy the pressure, enjoy the moment," she said. "Today I definitely said to myself I'm really having fun out there, even though it was 6-5, 5-All in the first set, which is stressful. I think I have to make sure I enjoy those moments in the matches, because later on in life I'm probably going to wish I could come back to this moment and experience it again. I'm going to enjoy these moments while they're happening."
Read more: The accelerated learning curve of Coco Gauff
Elsewhere, the unseeded Jessica Pegula held off Ekaterina Alexandrova 6-2, 6-4 to reach her first claycourt quarterfinal. The American backed up her upset of No.2 seed Naomi Osaka in the previous round with a solid performance in which she converted all seven break points she brought up.
After a first set that was largely one-way traffic for Pegula, Alexandrova battled hard in the second set to break back twice. But the Russian's first serve was not the weapon it can be, with only 56% landed, and Pegula was able to break again for the win.
Pegula, who is making her Rome debut, had only won one red clay match in a WTA main draw before this year.
"My awareness out there is so much better," she said. "Whereas before, maybe I'd just get too frustrated or I didn't quite understand what I was doing to win or lose the match, what was happening."
Over the past three weeks, she has already made one key adjustment - her baseline position.
"[In] Madrid, honestly, Sabalenka killed me," she said. "I didn't realise till after the match, but my coach was saying she was standing really far back. She was obviously still playing really aggressive. Usually I'm trying to step in a little bit more, take the ball early, look to come in. I think with clay I realised with the bad bounces, the lines, it's not really a true bounce all the time. I can stand back a little bit and still play aggressive, just kind of adjust my margins.
"I think that's something we adjusted coming into Rome. Is it perfectly how I want to play? Not really. I think it's working. I'm still trying to stay aggressive and hit out. I'm just giving myself a little bit more time if there's a bad bounce, I'm not timing the ball well on the clay. I'm never really going to be like a true clay-courter. I still think I can do well on the surface given my game. Gives me a lot of time to set up for my shots, which I like."