INDIAN WELLS, CA, USA - No.2 seed Simona Halep was given a stern test by Kateryna Kozlova, but made her way into the fourth round of the BNP Paribas Open for the fifth time in six years with a 7-6(3), 7-5 win over the qualifier in one hour and 47 minutes.
The first meeting between the two counterpunchers was a compelling affair throughout, with momentum swinging incrementally back and forth as neither player permitted the other to pull away significantly.
Although Kozlova, who was seeking the second Top 10 scalp of her career after unceremoniously ending Jelena Ostapenko's Roland Garros title defence in the first round last year, demonstrated that she could engage in extended rallies with Halep from the off, to begin with it was the Romanian who imposed her status on proceedings. After taking her third break point to capture Kozlova's serve in the opening game, a brace of fizzing backhand winners down the line consolidated Halep's lead.
But the Ukrainian hit back with some canny strategic adjustments: varying the height and pace of her shots and making judicious use of well-disguised dropshots, Kozlova got on the scoreboard with a three-game sequence, moving up 3-2 with a clutch hold in which she staved off three break points, the last with a brilliant pass that left Halep stranded at net.
The effort of winning that game seemed to take its toll on the 25-year-old, though, whose game inexplicably deflated following the changeover with a flurry of forehand errors. Now, it was Halep's turn to win three games in a row, the Roland Garros champion making her way to set point at 5-3 with Kozlova serving.
That came and went as Halep netted a forehand - heralding another pendulum swing. With the former World No.1's groundstrokes suddenly going awry, Kozlova reeled off 11 of the next 12 points, breaking back for 5-5 with a forehand winner plum on the line and coming within two points of the set herself as Halep served to stay in the set at 5-6. With Halep's first serve percentage languishing at 49% and a break point conversion rate of just two from nine, a major upset suddenly seemed possible.
Imminent danger seemed to sharpen Halep up again, though: striking her forehand with renewed ferocity, the Doha finalist forced a tiebreak. Therein, Kozlova would finally go to the dropshot well too often, attempting it four times and succeeding just once. Having built up a comfortable lead, Halep finally put the set to rest on her third opportunity with another trademark backhand down the line.
Kozlova continued to scrap valiantly, with the World No.114 showcasing some positive play at net and twice gaining a break lead over her opponent. But both times, Halep was able to strike back immediately, taking advantage of Kozlova's second serve - and in the fifth game, the 27-year-old finally delivered an authoritative service hold of her own, and rode its momentum to capture four successive games and a 5-2 lead.
The drama wasn't done with yet: serving to stay in the match, Kozlova won the point of the match with a wicked forehand angle and, rejuvenated, leveled the scoreline as Halep once again lapsed into error when called upon to close out a set.
But the parallels with the first act didn't end there. Kozlova was unable to sustain the momentum of her comeback, the 2018 Taipei City runner-up again over-using the dropshot while Halep reacted to the loss of her lead by hitting out with greater power and accuracy. From 5-5, the World No.2 reeled off eight consecutive points in the blink of an eye to take the match, winning - just as in the first set - with a backhand winner down the line, her 25th of the day. Up next for Halep with a quarterfinal spot at stake will be either No.22 seed Jelena Ostapenko or Marketa Vondrousova.