NURNBERG, Germany - Unseeded Kirsten Flipkens ended No.3 seed Kiki Bertens' 13-match winning streak at the Nurnberger Versicherungs Cup in a two-hour, 34-minute quarterfinal epic - and will have to return to court for her semifinal later today against Alison Riske.
The Belgian, who quashed Bertens' hopes of a hat-trick of Nurnberg titles, seals just her second career clay-court semifinal with the result following her run to the last four in Fes in 2011 - but also notches up her third career win over the World No.18 in four meetings, having also beaten the 26-year-old in Toronto in 2013 and the Vancouver ITF $100,000 event in 2015. "I think we played at a really high level," enthused Flipkens afterwards.
A rain-backlogged schedule had meant that the pair had to complete an early-morning quarterfinal in the knowledge that they would have to play again - and there was a further delay when Nurnberg's Centre court became too soft to play on midway through the first set, necessitating a move to Court 5.
After powering through eight of the first 10 points, with her renowned forehand hitting its spots with power and accuracy, Bertens seemed mindful of the need to work fast and conserve energy. But two double faults in the fourth game offered a foothold to Flipkens - and the Belgian duly took it with a fabulous forehand winner.
Thereafter, an evenly contested opening set pitted Bertens' power againt Flipkens' finesse. The former World No.13 would make her way to net wherever possible, frequently coming up with magic once there - such as a delectable stop-volley in the seventh game. Her hustle, too, was superb; in the tenth game Flipkens found herself pushed all over the court by Bertens' heavy groundstrokes, but retrieved all of them before firing a forehand pass.
That shot paved the way to a 40-0 lead and three consecutive set points for the 32-year-old - but the set was also characterized by Bertens coming up with her best tennis when in danger. The Dutch player had saved four break points in the eighth game with big serves and forehand winners, and once again responded well to adversity.
Flipkens would squander each of her set points with forehand errors, and the Charleston champion rubbed salt into the wound by proceeding to win 10 consecutive points - and 13 of the next 14 for a one-sided conclusion to the set.
The World No.69 was undeterred, and continued to outfox and outmanoeuvre her higher-ranked opponent in the second and third sets. "I should have won the first, but I knew that I had to stay focused and keep playing my game," she explained.
Flipkens showed off her net play to fend off a break point in each of her first two service games of the second, including a rare serve-and-volley attack - and indeed, the 2013 Wimbledon semifinalist was able to spring a few surprises to press home her advantage throughout the set.
With Bertens focused on keeping the ball to the primarily-sliced Flipkens backhand, the Lugano quarterfinalist nonetheless was able to keep her on her toes with a few unexpected drive backhand winners - including a brilliant pass early in the third set to reach break point.
As the match progressed, the Madrid runner-up's groundstroke accuracy declined; a sequence of errors led to a break of her serve in the eighth game of the second set, and Flipkens served it out with little trouble as Bertens failed to put a number of returns in court.
A compelling final act saw Flipkens repeatedly gain a lead, only for Bertens to tenaciously battle back. The 2016 Roland Garros semifinalist came from 2-4 down to level at 4-4 as she began to find her range with her groundstrokes again. Flipkens responded by swarming the net with renewed vigor, showing off her reflexes and her angles as she broke once again for 6-5 - only to squander this opportunity with a series of errors.
A fitting tiebreak dénouement, however, found the veteran able to bring her best tennis to the most crucial juncture of the match. While Bertens would bend double after several of the more extended rallies, the 32-year-old's energy levels remained high as she scurried around the court, retrieving magnificently on the second point before Bertens whiffed a smash.
Four points later, an exquisite dropshot would put Flipkens up 5-1 - and yet another magnificent reflex volley winner put the finishing touch on her 10th career Top 20 win, and first since defeating Venus Williams in the first round of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
Flipkens isn't done with tennis today, though; later, she takes on Alison Riske in the semifinals. The unseeded American was twice two points from defeat to No.6 seed Sorana Cirstea, who led 6-2, 5-4 - but when Riske managed to sneak the second set, the Romanian was forced to retire with a left leg injury while trailing 2-6, 7-5, 1-0.
The result marks Riske's maiden clay-court semifinal - and will also reprise her second-round match against Flipkens in 2017, which the 27-year-old won 6-2, 6-2. "I lost to her here last year and she's a tough opponent - I'm up for revenge!" declared Flipkens.