Karolina Pliskova is into the semifinals of the Internazionali BNL d'Italia for the third straight year, but she had to come back from the brink of defeat to get there.
The 2019 champion and 2020 runner-up survived an epic encounter with former Roland Garros champion Jelena Ostapenko before prevailing 4-6, 7-5, 7-6(1). Pliskova saved three match points at 5-4 in the final set before storming back to victory after two hours and 20 minutes of powerful play.
"Just proud, I think mostly, how I fought," Pliskova told the press, after her win. "I'm just happy that I stayed in there and fought till the end."
The No.9 seed staged her second clay-court comeback over Ostapenko this season, having fought back from a set down against the Latvian in Stuttgart last month as well. Overall, Pliskova now holds a 5-3 edge in her head-to-head against Ostapenko.
Each player broke serve seven times in the barnburner, but while Ostapenko had two more winners than Pliskova on the day, she had 14 more unforced errors than the Czech, and was denied the 13th Top 10 win of her career by the slimmest of margins.
Pliskova noted that Ostapenko is a "super dangerous player" in her post-match press conference. "We played last [month], so I knew what's going to be happening. You can never get ready for some of the balls which she's playing."
A topsy-turvy first set took place, as Ostapenko powered her way to a commanding 4-0 lead before Pliskova chipped the entirety of that advantage away, pulling back to 4-4. But Ostapenko ultimately claimed the one-set lead, drawing errors from Pliskova to break serve at 5-4.
Pliskova got her revenge in the second set, though not without a struggle as she was unable to serve it out at 5-4 herself. Nevertheless, she reclaimed the break with a crosscourt backhand to lead 6-5, then served brilliantly in the next game to attain a love hold, closing that out with an ace.
The stage was set for a classic deciding set, and it lived up to expectations under a darkening sky. Pliskova twice took an early break lead with super returning, and both times Ostapenko charged back behind blistering groundstrokes, en route to even footing at 4-4.
After saving two break points to hold for 5-4, Ostapenko got her big chance in that game. Pliskova hit three double faults in the first four points, and Ostapenko suddenly was at double match point. Even after Pliskova served her way to deuce, Ostapenko set up a third match point as well with a forehand winner down the line.
But Pliskova once again pulled a stellar delivery out of the hat, and she went on to execute a brave service hold for 5-5. From there, the players advanced to the tiebreak, where Ostapenko slammed a backhand winner on the first point. After that, though, it was all Pliskova, as the former champion reeled off seven straight points to notch a whisker-thin win.
Pliskova's opponent in the final four will be resurgent Petra Martic, who is into her first semifinal of the season after defeating Jessica Pegula, 7-5, 6-4 in one hour and 40 minutes.
"The key was to overtake, to not let her play and take control of the points of the rally and just make me run," Martic told the press, after her win. "So I tried to do that before her. I tried to use my serve. Obviously she didn't like my kick so much, so I knew I had to really be sharp on those first shots after return of serve and not let her overtake. I think I did that pretty well for the most part."
Coming into Rome, World No.25 Martic had put together two consecutive victories only once this season, but she has now reeled off four in a row in the Italian capital, under the tutelage of new coach Francesca Schiavone.
Martic held 17 break points in the clash; she was only able to convert five, but that was still enough to stop the run of World No.31 Pegula, who had beaten No.2 seed Naomi Osaka earlier in the week.
In a back-and-forth first set, a 2-0 lead for Pegula quickly turned into a 3-2 advantage for Martic. Pegula powered through the next game off of her backhand side to return to parity at 3-3, but it was Martic who would eventually reclaim scoreboard pressure.
After a handful of dropshots, including one on her fourth break point of the game, Martic earned a tough break to lead 6-5. From there, Martic served out the set with ease, slamming an ace to triumph in the opening frame.
Another closely-contested set followed, where Martic again broke serve in a protracted game, moving ahead 3-2 on her sixth break point of that tussle after a winning volley. But Pegula struck back immediately, using her backhand again to scoop up another fabulous point and break for 3-3 once again.
In the end, Martic’s steeliness and all-court variety paid off again, as she claimed another lengthy game with an error-forcing volley to earn a decisive break for 5-4. Martic swept through the final game with ease, setting up her tilt with Pliskova.