MADRID, Spain - No.3 seed Simona Halep remains on course to defend her Mutua Madrid Open title - but only after having to come back from the brink of defeat to beat unseeded Roberta Vinci 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(2) in Tuesday's second round.
"Her game is not easy to play. Her slices are very difficult to return," Halep, who trailed 5-2 in the final set, said. "She was hitting pretty strong also with the forehand today, serve, everything. She played unbelievable.
"I was close to losing the match, but I stayed strong. I stayed focused. I didn't give up. That makes this match much more like bigger for me. It means a lot."
The pair had played six times before, with the Romanian winning all three encounters on clay - but all of those matches had been somewhat one-sided straight-set affairs. That changed today with a high-quality battle that belied both players' seasons to date, and hung in the balance until the very end.
The tone was set early on, with the first three games all going to deuce as Halep and Vinci probed each other's games. Though it was the Italian who seized the first break, this merely seemed to wake the defending champion up.
Constructing points with more purpose and seizing opportunities in rallies with relish, Halep reeled off four games in a row to take the first set, as well as 13 consecutive service points.
The 34-year-old Vinci may have seen her ranking slip outside the top 30 this year, but in the second set she, showed that she is still capable of putting on a masterclass of finesse.
Overall, the Italian won 21 of 29 points at net, and her delicate drop volleys, exquisitely timed drop shots and brilliant anticipation in the forecourt were all in evidence in the second set as she put together a five-game run of her own.
By now, Vinci was in full flow, going from strength to strength and taking audacious risks on return that were paying off.
Halep, so used to out-manoeuvring her opponents, was the one getting tangled up in the veteran Italian's web - and soon faced a 2-5 deficit in the third set.
"I try just to stay positive, even if I was down, like 5-2 also in the third set. I was close to losing [the match]." Halep said. "It's tough to stay positive when you are 5-2 down, but still I tried just to play every ball and not thinking about the score.
"It was a good match, strong mentally for me. I've been strong till the end. That gives me more confidence that I'm strong mentally - even if I have downs."
Halep still had a final plot twist left in her, though. Rediscovering the combination of accuracy and aggression that had seen her sweep the first set, she quelled Vinci's attempts to get up the court with relentless depth.
The Italian was broken as she served for the match with a brilliant forehand, immediately followed by the No.3 seed's biggest fistpump of the day.
With both now playing well at the same time, a final set tiebreak was what this compelling match deserved.
The deciding game itself was somewhat anticlimactic, though: Halep tightened up her strokes while Vinci, unable to hit through the Romanian, ceded the final six points with loose errors.
Halep advances to face Samantha Stosur, who defeated qualifier Mariana Duque-Marino earlier in the day in straight sets. The two have played nine times, with Halep leading 5-4 overall, but trailing 3-1 on clay. All three of the Australian's wins in the matchup have come at the French Open: 2010, 2011 and 2016.
"I know Sam pretty well - we played many times together," Halep said. "It's going to be very difficult. Her topspin is not easy to return."
Halep's lone win in the matchup on clay came en route to her title in Madrid in 2016 - a 6-2, 6-0 victory in the semifinals.
"I played her here last year, so I know what I have to do, the Romanian added. "Still, it's going to be a tough match. I'm looking forward to it. Last year, I played a good match against her here. I have confidence about that. But, like I say always, it's going to be a different match.
"I'm just going there to do my job, to do my game. I will try to be aggressive, to avoid her topspin forehand!"