BIRMINGHAM, England - No.2 seed Elina Svitolina was pushed all the way by wildcard Heather Watson in the first round of the Aegon Classic in Birmingham on Monday, but came through the test in three sets, 6-2, 5-7, 6-3.
The highest-ranked player in the draw after the withdrawal of World No.1 Angelique Kerber, Svitolina rolled through the opening set before Watson rallied late in the second set to force a decider, which went the World No.5's way behind one break of serve.
The Brit hit back to save two match points in the final game of the match, but was unable to create a break point opportunity at any point in the third set.
"I've been struggling a little bit on grass for the past few years...and I like the way I played today, the way I handled the game, the tight moments as well," Svitolina assessed. "I was expecting that she would come back and play well because, she always plays well on grass and can be very dangerous player. I was very happy that I could finish in the third set on my serve. It was actually a pretty good game.
"This year has been a good year for me, and I think also on grass will be much better. Today, I think it was a good performance from me."
Three breaks in the first four games of the match helped put Svitolina in front early, but Watson twice had opportunities to get back on serve in the fifth and seven games of the set.
Unable to take advantage of a total of six break points in those two Svitolina service games, Watson surrendered serve at love to hand the World No.5 the opener in just under three quarters of an hour.
In contrasting fashion, the second set went with serve over the first 10 games - and it was Watson who upped her aggression in the second set, nearly doubling Svitolina's total winners. The wildcard struck 16 to the Ukrainian's nine over the course of the set, and won the last three games to force a decider.
"I thought we both played very well and served very well," Watson said. "I'd say especially in that first set I just felt that I had a lot of opportunities that I wasn't able to take, which I got very frustrated with, but just kept fighting in that second set.
"In the third, it was just one break, but I'm very pleased with how I'm hitting the ball. I just want to be more consistent and not give away too many free points."
However, the deciding set quickly swung in Svitolina's favor as she broke in the fourth game, and never allowed Watson a chance to draw level from there.
Though both players won just nine points on return in the set, it was the No.2 seed who strung them together when it mattered the most en route to the victory in two hours, 10 minutes.
All three career meetings between Watson and Svitolina have gone three sets, as the Ukrainian scored her first win in the head-to-head on grass.
"I have confidence with me, but still I was very happy that I could play my game in the tough moments, in the third set, even though I lost second set in very tough moments," Svitolina said. "I came back strong and didn't let the negative things go in my head and was fighting, this was very good today."
The Ukrainian, who has never advanced past the second round at Wimbledon, is looking to have her most successful season on grass to date this year.
"I think I was not strong enough physically, [but now] just everything came together," Svitolina said. "I tried to not do anything that I'm playing on grass that it's such a difficult surface to play on. I don't put this kind of pressure on myself. So just go out there, I play my game.
"I had some issues when I transitioned from clay court, but it's normal. Everyone was a bit struggling. There was a lot of withdrawals from this tournament, it's quite expected to have small things, and the body is -- it's quite normal. So I try to recover, and for me to be injury-free during throughout the grass court season is imperative."
Also advancing to begin play on Monday was No.8 seed Barbora Strycova, who never dropped serve in seeing off Yulia Putintseva, 6-3, 6-3 in one hour, 23 minutes.
Playing for the first time in five years, the 31-year-old saved three break points in a crucical fourth game of the opener to prevent Putintseva from getting the set back on serve, and lost just seven points in five service games in the second set.
“It was hot out there, but it is a nice change from last year, when we played the [doubles] final indoors," the two-time finalist said. "I didn’t play my best, but it’s important I win as I’ve a lot of points to defend this week and I need the practice on grass."
Runner-up to Madison Keys in Birminghm a year ago, Strycova added: "I’m not thinking about Wimbledon yet. Birmingham is an important tournament for me and I hope I can keep winning.”
Speaking of winning, unseeded Naomi Osaka also progressed to the second round in the tightest clash of the day, as she needed a final set tiebreak to defeat Lauren Davis, 6-1, 2-6, 7-6(4).
The Japanese player snapped a five-match losing streak that dated back to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix with the win, and served 11 aces in the victory.
To close out the day, wildcard Naomi Broady sent the home crowd home happy as she defeated Alize Cornet in straight sets, 7-6(3), 6-0, from 0-3 down in the opener.
The 27-year-old scored just her second win at the Aegon Classic in the past five years behind 21 winners and 18 unforced errors, while the Frenchwoman struggled with 26 unforced errors to just 11 winners.