RABAT, Morocco - No.2 seed Hsieh Su-Wei came back from the brink of defeat to score her fifth win in as many meetings over Lara Arruabarrena 4-6, 7-5, 6-3 and move into the Grand Prix de SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem quarterfinals for the second year in a row.
Last week in Stuttgart, the Chinese Taipei player had said of her historically suspicious relationship with the terre battue: "On clay, it can be pretty good, it can be pretty bad. I know I can suddenly get the feeling and I can feel really comfortable on the court." Today, Hsieh suddenly got the feeling in the nick of time, finding her best tennis to steal the match from a set and 3-5 down against an opponent to whom she had not previously conceded a set.
"I was aggressive, and I picked up my game almost at the last moment," she laughed afterwards.
Although it was evident that Hsieh's timing was not quite at its best from the outset, with the 33-year-old broken in the first game, she nonetheless had sufficient control of her strokes to move out to a 3-1 lead, breaking Arruabarrena twice and conjuring up moments of quintessential Hsieh wizardry: flicked defensive angles, a pinpoint lob, a cheekily sliced putaway that died on the clay.
But Arruabarrena has been resurgent recently, turning around a poor start to the year in which she lost her first five main draw matches with a semifinal showing in Bogota and a quarterfinal run in Lugano. At the latter, the Spaniard had scored her 14th career Top 30 victory over compatriot Carla Suárez Navarro - and as she raised her level to sweep nine of the next 11 games, a 15th seemed within touching distance.
The World No.110 would put together this streak with some impressive aggressive play, pounding two heavy off forehands to recapture the first break and finding a good deal of success at net, where she showed off her touch with delicately angled volleys. Hsieh's execution, meanwhile, was oscillating wildly: the Dubai semifinalist would finish the first set with 16 winners, but also 16 highly uncharacteristic unforced errors.
Hsieh continued to be out of sorts in the second set, striking out unusually impatiently at times, and she was not helped by some sterling defensive work from the Spaniard. Indeed, it was now Arruabarrena coming up with the magic from improbable positions - an exquisite counter-drop, a backhand winner down the line at full stretch - and a superb dropshot sealed a double break for 4-1.
"It was tough, because normally I handle the court pretty well," recalled Hsieh afterwards. "But today it looked like she was handling the dropshots and the volleys better than me - I was a little bit upset!"
With her back to the wall, though, Hsieh began to swing more freely, striking consecutive down-the-line winners en route to recapturing one of the breaks and gradually chipping away at Arruabarrena's lead. Having coughed up a double fault on break point to concede her serve at 4-1, the 27-year-old wobbled again serving for the match: passive play allowed Hsieh to dictate rallies in which Arruabarrena's strokes would break down first.
The set finally turned on a brilliant 11th game that saw both players throwing their best tennis at each other. After four deuces, it was Hsieh who eventually held with a backhand down the line - and she would keep her momentum up by breaking Arruabarrena to love to force a decider.
Now, the Miami quarterfinalist had found her range - and used it to construct several magnificent points over the course of the third set as she dragged Arruabarrena from line to line with impeccable placement. Hsieh's errors had almost vanished - she would commit only seven in the final set as her overall tally of winners mounted to 43 - and consequently, it was the former World No.52 who found herself at sea, with defensive tactics leaving her at Hsieh's mercy but unable to get into enough rallies on the front foot to play sustained aggression.
Some magnificent redirection from Hsieh would seal the crucial break for 3-1; striking both of her backhands with lethal precision, the Hiroshima champion would be able to protect her own delivery from facing any break points throughout the set, and closed the match out with a superb stab volley on her first match point after one hour and 58 minutes.
Hsieh's run to the semifinals in Rabat last year is, to date, her only appearance in the last four of a WTA claycourt tournament - but she'll have a chance to double that number by repeating the feat this year. Standing in her way in the quarterfinals will be either No.7 seed Johanna Konta or Ana Bogdan.