MELBOURNE, Australia - No.6 seed Karolina Pliskova triumphed in the fourth-round clash of the Czechs with swapped coaches, overcoming No.20 seed Barbora Strycova and her bag of tricks, 6-7(5), 6-3, 6-2 to move into the Australian Open quarterfinals for the second consecutive year.
The compatriots' coaching carousel movements over the off-season added an extra frisson to the encounter - Pliskova is now with Strycova's old coach Tomas Krupa, while Strycova has snapped up David Kotyza, formerly with Pliskova and Petra Kvitova - and both players began a tightly contested first set by probing at each other's games remorselessly.
The first four games alone took 22 minutes, with the 2016 US Open runner-up saving a break point in the opening game and Strycova having to fend off four to hold for 2-2. The quality was high: Pliskova captured a glorious 22-shot rally that contained slices, lobs, volleys and used every corner of the court, while her opponent - who has 20 doubles titles to her name - was storming forwards at every opportunity.
Frequently, Strycova would also use net play to her advantage in the sense of deliberately drawing her opponent in with short slices - before forcing her to hit difficult low volleys. A strategy employed so well by Magdalena Rybarikova at Wimbledon last year against Pliskova, it often resulted in errors from the former WTA World No.1 - and prevented her from dictating with her power off the ground.
Both players were serving well - Strycova was in fact the superior in this department, landing 84% of her first deliveries while also scoring two aces, the same as her famously big-serving opponent - and, it proved, incredibly evenly matched, with the 31-year-old striking 15 winners and 16 unforced errors in the first set to Pliskova's 16 winners and unforced errors.
It was no surprise, then, that the set would be decided by a tiebreak - and in the closing stages, it was Strycova's hustle and creativity, particularly in winning two key 21-stroke rallies, that proved decisive in sneaking the final game 7-5.
But while Strycova's swashbuckling style had paid off in the opening set, the tightrope she was walking began to wobble in the second. An uncharacteristic backhand volley error cost her an immediate break, her first of the match, while Pliskova was increasingly patient enough to use her power simply to move the WTA World No.24 around the court until she had an opening for a less risky winner - ultimately building up a total of 41. Meanwhile, her serve remained impenetrable as she moved to a double break lead.
Strycova would manage to retrieve one of them, but Pliskova's clean striking was in full flow as she hammered a forehand return winner crosscourt on her first set point to send the match the distance.
Though the 25-year-old would spurn four game points to suffer the first break of the decider, she was by now calmly picking her spots, frequently sending Strycova flailing on the floor as she tried in vain to retrieve Pliskova's lasers. A crosscourt backhand winner put the scoreline at level pegging again; two games later, Strycova let out an anguished cry as a routine forehand into the net put her behind 1-3.
Increasingly emotional, the two-time Australian Open girls' champion (in 2002 and 2003) was by now throwing her racket high into the air in frustration - both at her mounting mistakes and the impermeable solidity of Pliskova's groundstrokes. In the final game, the WTA World No.6 pounded a series of brilliant inside-out forehands - a shot that had let her down in the initial stages of the match - to make her way to match point.
A valiant net-rush from Strycova fended it off, and she somehow chased down a net cord to save a second - but one last backhand long put the WTA World No.7 into her second straight quarterfinal in Melbourne, the fifth time in the past six Slams that she has reached this stage. There, she will face No.1 seed Simona Halep.