LUGANO, Switzerland - Kristyna Pliskova ended wildcard Svetlana Kuznetsova's comeback tournament 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 in the quarterfinals of the Samsung Open presented by Cornèr, holding off a last-minute resurgence and coming through in two hours and five minutes to reach the second clay semifinal of her career.
It is also the first time the Czech has reached the last four of a WTA-level event on any surface since that run to the 2017 Prague final, and kickstarts a season in which she had been just 2-5 in WTA main draws prior to this week. The result extends Pliskova's head-to-head against Kuznetsova to 2-0 - their sole previous encounter had also been a win from a set down for the left-hander in the second round of Wimbledon 2015.
The quality of the contest was superb by the time it reached its climax - but it took a while to get there. Perhaps surprisingly, especially given Pliskova's renowned serve, an arduous first set was dominated by breaks. Out of 10 games, only two did not feature a break point; there were 20 in total, 10 for each player, five of which were converted: two by Pliskova but, crucially, three by Kuznetsova.
Both players were somewhat plagued by double faults, committing four apiece in the first set, but it was the 2009 Roland Garros champion's superior clay-court nous that came through on just enough occasions to make the difference. A fabulous lob-smash combination turned defence into attack to break for 3-2; and despite Pliskova serving her way out of three set points on her own serve, a canny backhand slice down the line left the World No.101 flailing and delivered the set to Kuznetsova on her fourth in the very next game.
The quality rose dramatically in the second set, with both players' unforced error count plummeting - from 25 to five for Pliskova and from 24 to eight for Kuznetsova. Indeed, there would be just one break point in the entire set - in the fourth game, set up by Pliskova with one of her most hard-hitting points of the day and converted when Kuznetsova sent a backhand into the net.
The Russian had her moments, too, shining both at net and in her hand skills on defence, but Pliskova was now grooved on serve - the 27-year-old won the first 10 points of the set behind her delivery, and conceded just five in the entire set. Consequently, she was also more stable in constructing points behind it, with a mechanical efficiency in finishing off short balls - including the neat volley on her second set point.
The first crucial moment of the decider seemed to be its second game: despite Kuznetsova's very best shotmaking, Pliskova would manage to serve her way out of five break points, aided by her eighth and ninth aces of the day. The 2016 Tashkent champion pressed home her advantage immediately, breaking in the very next game as Kuznetsova netted a smash.
The 33-year-old has been displaying her indomitable battling qualities all week in her first event after a six-month hiatus to recover from a knee injury, coming from a set down to defeat both No.6 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova and Timea Bacsinszky. Finally, it seemed to be telling, as a series of tired-looking errors crept back into Kuznetsova's game.
But the 18-time WTA titlist had one last gasp left in her - and it was a wonderful one to watch, as she roared back with some breathtakingly athletic all-court shotmaking, breaking to level at 4-4 and coming up with crowdpleasing passes and volleys to move within a game of victory.
Pliskova, however, was unrattled. A solid hold put the pressure back on Kuznetsova's shoulders, and the Russian offered up her seventh and eighth double faults of the day to fall behind a break for the last time. The Kuznetsova comeback has been a Swiss treat this week - but Pliskova was ruthless in ending it, serving out briskly to love to set up a semifinal against 17-year-old phenomenon Iga Swiatek.