No.31 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova dealt out another shock at Roland Garros, defeating No.3 seed Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-0 to reach the fourth round for the second time.
Sabalenka had been the highest remaining seed following Ashleigh Barty's retirement and Naomi Osaka's withdrawal - a status that now passes to No.4 seed Sofia Kenin. Serena Williams, the No.7 seed, is the only Top 10 player left in the bottom half of the draw.
Pavlyuchenkova has reached the second week of seven majors in her career, but this is the first time she has made that stage in Paris since her quarterfinal run as a 19-year-old in 2011. It was the 16th Top 5 win of the Russian's career, and her fourth on the major stage.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova's Top 5 wins at Grand Slams
2011 Roland Garros R4, d. Vera Zvonareva 7-6(4), 2-6, 6-2
2019 Australian Open R4, d. Sloane Stephens 6-7(3), 6-3, 6-3
2020 Australian Open R3, d. Karolina Pliskova 7-6(4), 7-6(3)
2021 Roland Garros R3, d. Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-0
Afterwards, Pavlyuchenkova says that she no longer thinks about her opponents' rankings - but playing those above her can have benefits.
"Sometimes I guess it's easier - well, not easier, but mentally you maybe have less to lose," she said. "The better player you are, the more players want to beat you, the more they are fired up against you.
"At this point, I'm not focusing on the rankings any more. Not focusing on anything, on the names, nothing. I just take this particular match, and I want to win this match. That's it. I have the tactic to play this player. I have a few things how I would like to beat her. That's it, basically."
This was a rematch of the pair's Madrid semifinal one month ago, which Sabalenka had thoroughly dominated to win 6-2, 6-3 en route to the title. But high-altitude clay in Madrid and indoor clay in Stuttgart, where the Belarusian had been runner-up, make for very different conditions to slow, damp Roland Garros clay after a night of rain.
The dynamic of the match was flipped from the outset. In Madrid, Pavlyuchenkova had struggled to withstand Sabalenka's raw pace to get into rallies. Here, she was consistently able to get hold of Sabalenka's first strikes to dish out power of her own, and to force her opponent to hit one to two more balls.
Pavlyuchenkova's ability to negate Sabalenka's power was most evident on return. Down 1-3 in the first set, she found a return winner to get back on serve, and another en route to breaking for 4-3. The Russian was also proficient at finishing points at net: she won nine out of 14 over the whole match, including a drive volley to seal the first set.
Sabalenka made an impressive recovery to capture the second set, with a flurry of return winners key to racing away with the last three games. But she was unable to sustain her momentum in the decider.
Instead, two double faults in the opening game put her at an immediate disadvantage. The mistakes that had plagued Sabalenka throughout the match flooded her game in the third set, in which she committed four of her eight double faults and 17 of her 39 unforced errors.
Sabalenka's backhand let her down in particular, with three missing the mark in the last game alone. Pavlyuchenkova will next face No.15 seed Victoria Azarenka in a bid to make her seventh Grand Slam quarterfinal.
Pavlyuchenkova drily ascribed her fine form to enjoying both her tennis and life more than when she was younger.
"I know it's a cliché," she said. "I was the first one to laugh at this - players would say, 'I'm going to go and enjoy out there.' I'm like, 'Yeah, right. Go enjoy, of course, good luck.'
"Now I actually do that. Even today on the court, apart from having pain in my knee and my leg, I was enjoying. I'm trying to embrace this. I'm enjoying much more now every point the tough matches than I used to before. I guess that's also the reason why I'm still here in the second week.
"Also, I feel like I'm fitter. Because I'm enjoying playing tennis, I work harder. You work hard, you enjoy the hard work. I think that's the best combination."
Rybakina, Zidansek hit major milestone
No.21 seed Elena Rybakina and the unseeded Tamara Zidansek both booked their places in the second week of a Grand Slam for the first time, in contrasting styles.
For Rybakina, the milestone feels overdue - though it should be noted that the surge that took her into the Top 20 in early 2020 was halted by the Covid-19 pandemic. The Kazakh fired 12 aces and struck 26 winners in total to defeat Elena Vesnina 6-1, 6-4.
Rybakina had come into Paris sporting an 8-9 season record - a far cry from the 21-4 record with which she began 2020. She played just one clay tournament ahead of Roland Garros, a second-round showing in Madrid. Afterwards, she revealed that she has been suffering from health problems this year.
"I was unlucky being in this hard lockdown in Australia which completely changed everything, I can say, because I lost this time preparation and everything," she said. "After, I had some issues with the health. Was not easy at all, but finally now I'm feeling much better. Also, before this tournament I didn't play three weeks. I rested a bit and I practiced, so I think it was a good decision.
"It was just not easy for me even get good practices, because I didn't feel well. So it was difficult to practice to manage all the things."
After cruising to a 6-1, 2-0 lead for the loss of only 11 points, Rybakina's concentration lapsed as she then dropped three straight games. The experienced Vesnina, ranked World No.1096 but a former Top 20 player contesting her third singles event following maternity leave, sensed opportunity.
But it was Rybakina, 21, who gathered herself. At 4-4 in the second set, Vesnina's backhand let her down with a series of errors, and Rybakina sealed victory with an efficient love hold. She will next face either Serena Williams or Danielle Collins - and afterwards, she told press she hoped it would be the former.
"Of course, I would like to play with Serena," Rybakina said. "The legend of the sport. Of course I want to be with her on the court, to feel this power and everything. I was watching her matches when I was growing up, and it will be nice to play with Serena. Why not?"
After being on the wrong end of a first-set whitewash in which she won just six points, Zidansek's career-best Grand Slam run seemed to be all but over. But the Slovenian quelled her nerves to eventually emerge a 0-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 victor over Katerina Siniakova after one hour and 57 minutes.
Zidansek, who upset No.6 seed Bianca Andreescu in the first round, committed 10 unforced errors to two winners in the first set. But the 23-year-old made a fresh start in the second, patiently constructing her points while remaining aggressive rather than attempting to dominate from the first strike.
Siniakova twice pegged Zidansek back from a break down, and after stellar all-court play from both, a tiebreak ensued. Zidansek was the firmer there, sealing a crucial set with a brilliant backhand winner.
"At the beginning I just felt like the conditions were different to what they were before," said Zidansek afterwards. "It was rainy. It was a little bit heavy, humid. I just needed to adjust to it. It was a thin line. Once I got the first game in the second set, I kind of got the hang of it. We were still pretty close in the second. Once I managed to get the tiebreak, I was starting to feel really comfortable out there."
Both of Zidansek's WTA finals - Nurnberg 2019 and Bogota 2021 - have come on clay, as have her two WTA 125 titles in Bol 2018-19. Her claycourt prowess was evident in her movement and use of spin as she swept through the third set.
A former Top 20 junior, Zidansek is part of the 1997-born generation that has already produced two Grand Slam champions in Naomi Osaka and Jelena Ostapenko, as well as three Top 20 players in Belinda Bencic, Daria Kasatkina and Ana Konjuh.
It's becoming clear that this generation has even more to give, with a group of players that were just behind that group of five as teenagers now making their move. As well as Zidansek, the past year has seen surges from Paula Badosa, Veronika Kudermetova, Jil Teichmann and Nadia Podoroska.
"My career has always been progressing slowly and slowly, like building a house," said Zidansek about the benefits of slower progress. "It was never like I was 16 years old and I just did one result. I have to work for everything, so I guess that made a solid ground for me being able to not have that letdown."
Zidansek becomes just the second woman to reach a Grand Slam final playing under the Slovenian flag following Katarina Srebotnik, who made that stage three times: Roland Garros 2002 and 2008, and the US Open 2008. However, Mima Jausovec was also the 1977 Roland Garros champion playing for the former Yugoslavia.
Polona Hercog will seek to join Zidansek as she takes on No.20 seed Marketa Vondrousova in a later match. No woman playing under the Slovenian flag has ever made a Grand Slam quarterfinal.