NEW YORK, NY, USA -- World No.1 Karolina Pliskova struggled for the second consecutive match at the 2017 US Open -- and, once again, she turned it around in the nick of time.
Pliskova, the No.1 seed and last year's finalist, staged a stirring come-from-behind victory on Saturday over No.27 seed Zhang Shuai of China, 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, saving a match point in the second set in the process. Pliskova is still in the hunt to retain her No.1 ranking following the US Open.
"I think I'm playing in quite big waves this tournament so far," said Pliskova in her post-match press conference. "So I think sometimes I think I play good shots, good rallies, and then there is hundreds of mistakes and not a good shot."
"I just try to fight even if my game is not 100%, and it's not 100%, actually, this week," the World No.1 continued. "But I'm winning, so that's the main thing."
Pliskova had beaten Zhang all four times they had played in the past, including a 55-minute demolition at the Qatar Total Open in February. This was a much more difficult encounter on a mostly cloudy day in the still conditions of Arthur Ashe Stadium.
Pliskova broke Zhang in the first game of the match, but, after that, the first set belonged to the Chinese No.2. She immediately broke back to level the match at 1-1, and then broke Pliskova for a second time in a row when she hit a backhand winner behind the Czech.
Both players held on to their serves from there, but that meant Zhang would not cede her break lead in the opener. On her first set point at 5-3, Zhang hit a stellar serve and moved up to the net during the rally, putting away a shot in the forecourt to clinch a one-set lead.
"I think she just played very well today," Pliskova said about Zhang after the match. "She was playing very well from the baseline, didn't miss much, even from the forehand side, even from the backhand side. Had really good depth from the shot."
Indeed, Zhang was clever throughout the match, moving forward as much as she could to win quick points against Pliskova. She was 8-for-10 at the net in the first set. Meanwhile, Pliskova's typically solid groundstrokes were misfiring at first, as she had 14 unforced errors in the first set, many off her forehand side.
Much like the first set, Pliskova started the second set with the lead, breaking Zhang for 2-0, and then saving four break points in a tight game to hold for 3-0. But Zhang continued to take risks on her returns, and was rewarded with a set-leveling break for 3-2.
It appeared that Zhang had Pliskova's number, as the Chinese player's speed and assertiveness forced the top seed into more errors, and when a Pliskova forehand went wide down break point at 4-4, Zhang had the opportunity to serve for the match, and a second career win over a World No.1.
Zhang withstood a break point to start that game, and got to match point when Pliskova hit another error -- this time a backhand into the net. But a crushing forehand by the Czech was too strong for Zhang to put back in the court, and the point for victory went begging. Zhang could not hold on, and the set was back to 5-5.
When asked about the bruising forehand on match point, Pliskova responded, "If you're match point down, you don't really think, like, about what to play or if to hold it in the rally, so I didn't have any other choice. I just went through it and prayed that it's going to be in, and it was in."
Pliskova then dismissed three break points in her next service game to hold for 6-5. A deflated Zhang was soundly thumped in her next service game, hitting a double fault followed by a forehand error to hand over the set. Pliskova hit 16 winners in the second set, twice as many as Zhang.
Pliskova received treatment on her right arm between the second and third sets, and when Zhang broke the Czech in the first game of the final set, another momentum shift felt possible.
But more errors came off of Zhang's racquet as the set moved towards its conclusion, and Pliskova willed herself to get back level at 2-2. Pliskova's vaunted serve started to click, generally for the first time in the match, and she would face no more break points from that point forward.
Roughly an hour after she stared down a match point against her, Pliskova reached match point on Zhang's serve, and, after some strong defense by Zhang, a backhand crosscourt winner gave the No.1 seed the victory after two hours and 19 minutes of back-and-forth tennis.
It was her second big comeback in a row, after surviving American qualifier Nicole Gibbs in her previous round. "Maybe next time I should play a little bit better earlier and not the last game," concluded Pliskova.
Pliskova will face either American Jennifer Brady or Romanian Monica Niculescu in the fourth round.