ISTANBUL, Turkey - Barbora Strycova continued to battle through the TEB BNP Paribas Istanbul Cup draw, recovering from a first set whitewash at the hands of talented teenage qualifier Elena Rybakina to make her first semifinal of the year 0-6, 7-6(6), 6-0 in exactly two hours.
The Czech had already come through two gruelling three-setters to reach the quarterfinals, needing two hours and 42 minutes to overcome No.9 seed Viktoria Kuzmova 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 in the first round and two hours and 12 minutes to make her way past Sorana Cirstea 6-2, 1-6, 6-3 in the second round. For the first half hour today, it seemed as though those marathons had taken their toll on the 33-year-old, who required medical treatment twice but was unable to avoid a bagel blitz as Rybakina delivered a masterclass of controlled power.
The Kazakh had first turned heads in February last year when, as a qualifier ranked World No.450, she stunned Caroline Garcia 4-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(5) in the second round of St. Petersburg for a maiden Top 10 win on her first go. The 2019 season has already brought the 19-year-old three ITF World Tour trophies and a 24-6 win-loss record - and, in her first WTA event of the year (and just fourth overall) this week, Rybakina had already added No.7 seed Katerina Siniakova and defending champion Pauline Parmentier to her list of scalps.
Across a brilliant opening set in which Rybakina struck 12 winners, it was easy to see why. The World No.161's groundstrokes were cleanly struck, well-controlled and delivered with seemingly effortless power, and garnered her 12 winners over the course of a 28-minute first set. Not that Rybakina was solely about big hitting: each of her three dropshot attempts were exquisitely timed and executed as well.
Even Strycova's famed variety wasn't putting the youngster off her stride as the youngster sealed a bagel set by hammering a backhand winner off a Strycova dropshot. But the second set would prove to be a greater test for the former junior World No.3 as errors crept into her game and Strycova's level rose.
Rybakina spent much of the set having to recover from minor setbacks - and for most of it, she succeeded. Broken in the first game to love with four straight loose forehand errors, she immediately levelled the score with a brave drive volley; net forays also helped Rybakina fend off danger behind her serve as she came up with her most controlled hitting to save break points in the fifth and seventh games. Even when Strycova eventually broke through on Rybakina's serve for 5-4, the qualifier raised her game again to force a tiebreak - where, having recovered from 2-4 to 5-5, she would come within two points of her maiden WTA Tour semifinal.
But as many an opponent over the past decade has found out, once Strycova has her teeth into a match, the Czech is tough to dislodge. Her finesse had come to the fore at last as the second set had gone on as she conjured up moments of magic on the half-volley and lob, and some swashbuckling serve-and-volley play in the closing stages of the tiebreak helped her level the score at a set all. Having been unable to land a single winner in the first set, Strycova would strike 18 over the next two.
When Rybakina came out firing to carve out two break points in the first game of the decider, it seemed as though she had been able to shake off the second-set loss with the same cool head she had hitherto displayed. But Strycova's serve-and-volley tactic would again deny her, and from that point on Rybakina's challenge collapsed entirely.
The teenager's errors mounted dramatically for a final tally of 50, while Strycova went from strength to strength: a dinked backhand winner off a Rybakina counterdrop, a magnificent forehand pass to give her break point for 4-0. The World No.47 had been shut out comprehensively in the first set - but repaid Rybakina with her own medicine as she captured 22 of the last 25 points to seal the reverse bagel. The scoreline is the third such reverse bagel of the season, following Jelena Ostapenko's 6-1, 0-6, 6-0 defeat of Kristina Mladenovic in the first round of St. Petersburg and Kaia Kanepi's 0-6, 6-0, 7-5 win over Elise Mertens in the second round of Charleston.
Up next for Strycova is a semifinal clash with either compatriot Marketa Vondrousova or Lara Arruabarrena.