Two of the bett1open's top three seeds crashed out in their opening matches as Alizé Cornet held off No.3 Bianca Andreescu 7-6(2), 7-5 in two hours and five minutes and Ekaterina Alexandrova ousted No.2 Elina Svitolina 6-4, 7-5 after saving seven set points in the second set.
Both Andreescu and Svitolina had received first-round byes, while Cornet and Alexandrova already had quality matchplay under their belts after defeating Amanda Anisimova and Anna Kalinskaya respectively. Cornet notched up her 21st career Top 10 win, and first since beating Sofia Kenin at the Western & Southern Open last August, while for Alexandrova it was her fourth victory over opposition in that echelon.
Cornet's straight-sets scoreline belies the fluctuations within the match. Both sets followed a similar pattern: the Frenchwoman leapt out to a dominant start before Andreescu found her best tennis to mount a comeback - only for Cornet to edge the set anyway.
Aggression was the order of the day for Cornet, who raced out of the blocks and struck six forehand winners en route to a 4-1 lead. All of the 31-year-old's experience was also on display in a number of slice-heavy exchanges against Andreescu, who was celebrating her 21st birthday.
The Canadian was contesting just the second grass-court WTA-level main draw match of her career following her debut at Wimbledon 2017, where she lost to Kristina Kucova in the first round after qualifying. Indeed, she had never before played a Top 100 opponent on grass, and this was the first time she had set foot on the surface since falling in 2018 Wimbledon qualifying to Antonia Lottner.
But few competitors are as gritty in the face of a scoreboard deficit as Andreescu, and she redoubled her intensity by unleashing her full power on three returns in a row to gain the break back. The former US Open champion also saved three set points at 4-5 and 5-6 with clutch service winners.
Double faults had crept into both players' games towards the end of the set, with Cornet committing two at 5-5 and Andreescu responding in kind with three in the next game. But another from Andreescu put her behind in the ensuing tiebreak. Cornet sailed through it with surprising ease, sealing her fourth set point with another forehand winner.
The double faults continued to mount for Andreescu, who ultimately tallied eight, and Cornet would ride her momentum from the first set to a 4-1 double-break lead in the second. But a handful of cheap errors from the World No.63 opened the door for her opponent, and Andreescu needed no further encouragement. The first break back was captured with a booming backhand winner, and more ferocious returns garnered the second back as well.
Reeling off four games in a row to lead 5-4, momentum was firmly with Andreescu. But a solid hold from Cornet halted it efficiently, and at 5-5 the errant Andreescu of the match's start returned. Backhand mistakes and another double fault flowed, and Cornet was swift to take advantage, delivering knockout blows from the forecourt to seal each of the last two games.
"I was very motivated today, I really wanted this match," said Cornet afterwards. "I had great sensations in my first round already. Today, especially in the beginning of the match, I was playing very well. But you know Bianca, she's fighting til the end - she came back and I got pretty tight.
"Emotionally it was tough - she was playing better and better and I was having less intention. But it was good, I got myself together at 5-4 and I really tried to stay focused on what I have to do, and in the end it was 7-5."
Fourth time lucky for Alexandrova to take out Svitolina
"Fourth time lucky!" grinned Alexandrova after finally mastering the Svitolina challenge.
The Russian delivered an immaculate serving performance in the first set and pulled off a gritty comeback in the second, saving seven set points as Svitolina served for it. Previously, she had lost all three encounters with Svitolina, including missing two match points in the third round of Abu Dhabi in January.
All of those matches had been on slower courts that favoured Svitolina, who also won in straight sets at Roland Garros 2020 and Miami 2021. Grass has long been a happy hunting ground for Alexandrova, though. The Russian caused a splash as a qualifier making her WTA debut at Wimbledon 2016 by upsetting Ana Ivanovic in the first round, and today's result puts her into her third WTA quarterfinal on the surface following 's-Hertogenbosch and Eastbourne 2019.
"I really like playing on grass," said Alexandrova afterwards. "I was looking forward to it."
The slick turf enhanced Alexandrova's serve well: the World No.34 landed 79% of her first deliveries in the opening set and consequently did not face a break point. At 3-3, she slammed three consecutive forehand winners to capture the crucial break of Svitolina's serve.
The Ukrainian raised her level as Alexandrova dipped in the next act. Having found just three winners in the first set, Svitolina upped her aggression to strike 10 in the second. In contrast to the preceding set, Alexandrova found herself facing break points in each of her first three service games - and though she saved the first six, she found the net with a backhand to hand Svitolina a 4-2 lead.
Svitolina stood on the verge of forcing a decider serving at 5-3, 40-0 - but a double fault was the start of an unexpected turnaround. Alexandrova saved another five set points with winners, though two were helped by fortunate net cords, and a sixth with a backhand return that was too hot for Svitolina to handle.
Suddenly, the momentum had flipped again. Alexandrova, striking the ball with her first-set fluency again, reeled off the last four games, with Svitolina coughing up another double fault to drop serve for the second time in a row.
"To play against Elina is always tough and I'm surprised I won in two sets," said Alexandrova afterwards. "In my mind I was already focused on the third set - I think I was luckier in that important game, and when I broke her back it gave me more confidence."
The result is Alexandrova's fourth career Top 10 win, and puts her into her fifth quarterfinal of 2021. She will bid to reach her first semifinal since the Gippsland Trophy in February against either No.5 seed Belinda Bencic or Petra Martic.