STRASBOURG, France - The red clay of Europe has continued to revive Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova's year at the Internationaux de Strasbourg, as the No.3 seed looked sharp in taking an all-Russian clash 6-4, 6-4 over unseeded compatriot Natalia Vikhlyantseva.
The result means that Pavlyuchenkova progresses to her second quarterfinal of 2018, both in the clay season, following her run in Stuttgart a month ago; it is her second win in as many encounters with Vikhlyantseva, having also defeated the younger Russian 6-2, 6-2 in the first round of the Australian Open last year.
"I'm very satisfied, because it was a very good level match from both of us," said Pavlyuchenkova afterwards. "I've practised with her before, and she put up her level really high."
In a hard-hitting affair characterized by furious baseline exchanges, it was the 26-year-old who was sharper and more consistent, repeatedly finding pinpoint angles and corners with her forehand in particular. In a tightly contested first set, Pavlyuchenkova was also rock-solid behind her serve, facing just one break point - saved with a backhand crosscourt - and winning 75% of the points behind both first and second deliveries.
Though Vikhlyantseva had her fair share of highlights, blitzing backhands down the line whenever she was able to get set up on that wing, she was more likely to go for wild, low-percentage shots than Pavlyuchenkova. In addition, the four-time Grand Slam quarterfinalist was reading Vikhlyantseva's serve superbly, frequently teeing off on spectacular returns.
The 21-year-old battled hard to keep in touch and playted some of her best tennis with her back against the wall, staving off four break points in her opening service game and coming up with magnificent hitting to save four set points - including a delightful flicked backhand pass. But on the fifth, yet another Pavlyuchenkova service winner put the World No.31 a set up.
Vikhlyantseva, who was seeking to make her first ever clay-court quarterfinal, continued to threaten in the second set - and when a rare Pavlyuchenkova lapse in the form of a double fault put the World No.81 up 4-2, it seemed as though a decider was on the cards.
But the 11-time WTA titlist snuffed out this momentum instantly, breaking back with a canny dropshot - a play that she had eschewed completely in the first set, but which won her the point on each occasion she tried it in the second. Two games later, consecutive breathtaking return winners took Pavlyuchenkova to the brink of the match, and she proceeded to serve it out to 15 with little drama.
"I'm really happy with the way I kept going at the ball, even though she was up in the second set," said the victor. "I turned it around and I didn't get down on myself."
With a quarterfinal now under her belt on her Strasbourg debut, Pavlyuchenkova's form and results are looking healthier than they were prior to the clay swing, in which her record is now 4-3. She'll seek to improve that even further against Zarina Diyas in the last eight.
"It's going to be an interesting one," mused Pavlyuchenkova. "I've seen her around, of course, and seen how she plays - but I've never played her before."