LONDON, Great Britain - Qualifier Evgeniya Rodina became the latest underdog to send shockwaves through the Wimbledon draw, eliminating No.10 seed Madison Keys 7-5, 5-7, 6-4 after surviving an impressive comeback attempt from the US Open finalist.
"Of course I'm surprised a little bit - because I won!" exclaimed Rodina afterwards. "She's a great player. I never played against her but she hits so hard."
The Russian is one of two mothers remaining in the draw alongside Serena Williams out of a starting lineup of six, having taken time off tour to give birth to daughter Anna in 2012. She had never previously beaten a Top 20 player in 15 attempts, nor reached the second week of a major; indeed, her sole prior appearance in the third round of a Slam had been exactly a decade ago, on her Wimbledon debut in 2008. Yet Rodina survived an initial barrage of power from Keys to sweep to the verge of a straight-sets victory.
It was the American began the match in coolly efficient form, hammering down seven aces and conceding just four points in her first four service games as she stormed to a 5-2 lead. With Keys also effective off the ground, particularly with some lethal backhands down the line, and at net, Rodina could ill afford any lapses of her own - such as the two double faults in the fourth game that saw her broken for the first time.
But although Keys had the pace, the World No.120 was quietly putting together a solid set of her own - one in which she committed just four unforced errors. As the 2015 quarterfinalist served for the set, Rodina pounced, coming up with stunning down-the-line winners, one off each wing, to break back. A rattled Keys was unable to put a return in play during the next game, and Rodina continued to be the thinker on court by following a deft backhand down the line with a dropshot to break once more - before sealing an unlikely comeback on her third set point.
The 29-year-old's ability to take the ball early with short backswings was beginning to rush Keys off the ground, and some brilliant returning kept her momentum going into the second set. Showcasing some excellent reflexes at net as well, Rodina reeled off nine consecutive games as Keys continued to struggle with the dimensions of the court.
But in a crucial fifth game, Rodina, who hit a career high of No.75 last April - beating her best ranking before taking maternity leave of No.87 in July 2008 - was unable to convert four break points that would have given her a 5-0 and triple-break lead, including a putative backhand winner that missed by inches. Keys, whose ability to retrieve deep deficits has already seen her put together several unlikely comeback wins in her career so far, sensed fragility - and relocated her serve, halting the run of games against her with her eighth and ninth aces of the day.
Indeed that game proved to be a turning point. On the brink of a career-best win, it was Rodina's turn for her first serve to desert her in the next game - and this time it was Keys who would reel off eight of the next nine games. With the 23-year-old's errors no longer leaking with such frequency, Rodina seemed caught between a strategy of solidity - garnering fewer rewards now - and aggression, with more of a risk of making mistakes herself. In the meantime, there was also the small matter of the Keys bombardment to face, particularly on the forehand, which would rack up 31 clean winners over the course of the match - including a magnificent return on her first set point to level the match.
Having been so close to a 5-0 lead in the biggest match of her career, Rodina might have succumbed to nerves. But, she said, she tried to remain positive, even when a knee injury started to become painful in the third set. "I tried to play more aggressive, finish points faster," she recalled. "I tried to think more positive and relax. I stayed focused on my game and she made a lot of mistakes. I just kept playing, not thinking about whether I could win or lose - just play."
Heading into the deciding set, the momentum continued to oscillate, albeit in less dramatic fashion. Twice Rodina went up a break; twice, Keys buckled down and broke back. But the Roland Garros semifinalist had not been able to completely eradicate the errors from her game - she would eventually hit a total of 48 - and at 4-4 her groundstrokes found the net, offering Rodina the opportunity to serve for the match. This time, the qualifier held rather firmer than she had in the second set: a brave redirected forehand into the corner garnered her first match point, and one more Keys error sealed a magnificent win.
In the first fourth round of her life, Rodina will face a fellow mother in 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams - and it'll be a date to remember for her. "Serena is my idol," declared the Russian. "She's a great player, she's a champion, she's a great woman and she plays unbelievable tennis."
Still, with six victories under her belt over the past fortnight after coming through qualifying, Rodina is in no mood to stop winning. "I go to play and try to beat anyone, not to lose," she smiled.