BIRMINGHAM, UK - In a dazzling display of shotmaking, Margarita Gasparyan kicked off the Nature Valley Classic with a shock upset and a career-best win, outhitting No.4 seed Elina Svitolina 6-3, 3-6, 6-4 over one hour and 53 minutes.
It is the Russian No.5's second Top 10 scalp, following her defeat of Kiki Bertens in the second round of Linz last October. Though her grass experience thus far has been limited - indeed, the World No.62 only scored her first main draw win on the surface last week in 's-Hertogenbosch over Viktoria Kuzmova - Gasparyan demonstrated that her game is a natural fit for the slick lawns as she repeatedly sent flat, hard-hit winners skidding past her higher-ranked opponent.
Striking relentlessly down each line with pace and accuracy, Gasparyan broke the WTA Finals champion in the opening game, and despite being pegged back to 2-2, retained her composure to swiftly regain the lead for 3-2. Constructing efficient, rapid-fire rallies and displaying a willingness to finish points at net, this time Gasparyan held on to take the set, breaking Svitolina again to capture the set as the Ukrainian, facing a fourth set point, finally sent a backhand long.
Svitolina, playing for the first time since her third-round loss to Garbiñe Muguruza at Roland Garros, had not helped her cause with five double faults and 15 unforced errors in the first set - and last year's quarterfinalist quickly tidied these up to hit back in the second set. Countering Gasparyan's power with improved anticipation and making her own way forwards to take the net away from the Tashkent champion, Svitolina broke twice - each time with a backhand winner from a defensive position - as she leapt out to a 5-1 lead.
Though Gasparyan battled valiantly to cling on to the set, taking advantage of an error-strewn attempt to serve it out from Svitolina to capture one break back and saving four set points with clutch serving in the next game, the former World No.41's game was still oscillating too much: those service winners were interspersed with three double faults in the same game, and facing her fifth set point sent a backhand wide as Svitolina squared the match.
With the former World No.3 now extending rallies with ease, her experience and versatility seemed to have gotten the better of Gasparyan as the match entered the decider. But instead, it was the unseeded player who raised her level to come up with her best tennis of the day.
Proving increasingly effective at sustaining her high-risk baseline game to finish off the longer points that Svitolina was forcing, Gasparyan hit something of a purple patch. The former World No.41 - who endured three knee surgeries and was sidelined for 16 months between Wimbledon 2016 and Moscow 2017 - broke Svitolina for 2-1 with some magnificent play, including two clean return winners - one a sneaky dropshot - and sealing the break with a breathtaking backhand down the line. Two more of the latter extended Gasparyan's hot streak further as she rode her momentum to a second break and a 4-1 lead.
Clinging on to the match, a forehand pass from Svitolina reduced the deficit to one break - but, hitting out with gusto, Gasparyan maintained this lead, serving out the upset at the first time of asking and sealing victory with a delightfully spun backhand volley.