No.12 seed Simona Halep triumphed in a 7-6(11), 4-6, 6-3 third-round thriller over No.19 seed Elena Rybakina to reach the second week of the US Open for the fourth time.
At 2 hours and 24 minutes in length, it was just three minutes shy of the pair's only previous completed match - Halep's 3-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) victory in the 2020 Dubai final. This time round, wild momentum shifts saw both players come up with their best tennis when behind, until the former World No.1 pulled away in the home stretch.
Halep came from 0-3 and 3-5 down and saved four set points in the opener, finally converting her own seventh after an epic tiebreak - the longest of her career. She overturned a 0-3 double break deficit in the second set and came within five points of victory when she held two points to lead 5-4, before Rybakina forced a decider. There, Halep recovered from an early break to dominate the closing stages of the match.
Playing the scoreboard: Both players broke serve seven times, and Halep finished with just three points more than Rybakina - 106 to 103. The stat sheet inevitably showed the powerful Kazakh with superior offensive numbers - 34 winners to Halep's 24, and 14 aces to just one.
The match was thus decided by who would find their best tennis when they most needed it. Halep began each set slowly, dropping her opening service game. By contrast, Rybakina was at her most imperious when the scoreboard was a blank canvas or fresh start.
But the 21-year-old was unable to sustain her intensity. In the first set, her forehand began to break down as Halep targeted it relentlessly. Serving for it, she dumped an error off that wing halfway up the net - one of the 51 she would tally overall. In the second, Halep came up with a series of scorching winners to get one of the breaks back, but Rybakina coughed up three double faults to hand the second over.
Slamming the door on set ✌️— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 3, 2021
Elena Rybakina levels up the match with Simona Halep. pic.twitter.com/khneda52BU
Rybakina was impressive with her back to the wall. Facing quadruple set point in the first set tiebreak, she rediscovered her intensity and refused to miss - the juncture at which the match truly came alive. But it was only for Halep to match that energy with supreme court coverage and bold drive volleys to save three set points of her own. Ultimately and unfortunately, Rybakina ended the tiebreak how she had started it - with a double fault.
Rybakina also seized the second set out of nowhere, reeling off eight of the last nine points with brilliant power tennis, and carried that momentum to break immediately in the decider. But the Romanian battled through a two-deuce tussle to break back immediately, then seized control for 3-1 with one of several deep returns at Rybakina's feet that forced an error. There would be no hint of another turning point.
What Rybakina needs to improve: Having had her 2020 surge disrupted by Covid-19, Rybakina was belatedly able to bring that form to the big stage when she upset Serena Williams to make her first Grand Slam quarterfinal at Roland Garros. She backed that up with a fourth-round run at Wimbledon and a semifinal showing at the Olympic Games.
But of Rybakina's 10 wins over Top 20 players, only one has come at a major - the Williams victory - and she has developed an unwanted habit of coming out on the wrong end of narrow contests in big matches. Today's result can be filed alongside her 6-7(2), 6-2, 9-7 loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in the Roland Garros quarterfinals; her 6-3, 4-6, 6-3 defeat by Aryna Sabalenka in the Wimbledon last 16; and a 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-3 loss to Belinda Bencic in the Olympic semifinals.
What's next for Halep: The US Open has rarely been Halep's happiest hunting ground. She reached the fourth round of a major for the first time here in 2013, and also posted a semifinal run in 2015 and a quarterfinal in 2016. But prior to this year, her winning percentage in New York was just 63%, compared to 72% or over at each of the other three Slams.
That's improving this year, and will have the chance to do so even more against either No.5 seed Elina Svitolina or No.25 seed Daria Kasatkina in the fourth round.
Krejcikova beats lucky loser Rakhimova to make last 16 on US Open debut
For the second major in a row, No.8 seed Barbora Krejcikova has reached the second week on her tournament debut after defeating lucky loser Kamilla Rakhimova 6-4, 6-2 in one hour and 12 minutes.
The Czech had lost in US Open qualifying five times between 2014 and 2019, but has surged in 2021 to win the Roland Garros title, as well as trophies in Strasbourg and Prague. She backed up her surprise Paris run with a fourth-round showing in Wimbledon, and this result puts her into the last 16 of a Slam for the fourth time.
Rakhimova, who turned 20 last week and was playing a Top 20 opponent for the first time, gave a spirited account of herself. She went toe-to-toe with Krejcikova through most of the first set, showcasing a fine serve, a useful dropshot and plenty of hustle.
At 4-4, the Russian World No.134's inexperience showed. Having not faced a break point until then, she coughed up four of her 25 total unforced errors to drop serve. In the second set, she began to overpress in an attempt to get back into the match, and ended up falling away.
Krejcikova turned in a solid performance, interspersed with moments of magic as she caressed feathery volleys and found the sharpest possible angles for winners. A subpar 52% first serve percentage and seven double faults were her only worries. Two of the latter got her briefly into potential trouble, each bringing up the only two break points Rakhimova would hold all match.
Those occurred in two key games - just after Krejcikova had gone up a break in the second set, and when she was serving for the match. She staved them off with brisk accuracy, saving the first with a dropshot and the second with a one-two punch. Two points later, a smash sealed victory, and a fourth-round clash against No.9 seed Garbiñe Muguruza.
It will be the third time the pair have played this year. Muguruza triumphed 7-6(6), 6-3 in the Dubai final in March, but Krejcikova got her revenge 6-1, 6-7(5), 6-2 in the third round of Cincinnati two weeks ago.