ROLAND GARROS, France - No.5 seed Elina Svitolina ended qualifier Petra Martic's dream run to move into her second Roland Garros quarterfinal, reeling off five straight games from 2-5 down in the final set for a hard-fought 4-6, 6-3, 7-5 victory.
The World No.290 may be the lowest-ranked player in the second week of any Slam since an unranked Justine Henin began her comeback with an Australian Open final run in 2010, but Martic is a former World No.41 who already has a fourth-round appearance here under her belt, back in 2012. Her ranking is an indicator less of her ability than of the 10 months she spent off the WTA Tour between June 2016 and April 2017 due to a back injury.
And, even though her ranking fell all the way to No.622 in her time away, Martic pointed out afterwards that she is a more mature player these days, contrasting her attitude last time she was in the fourth round with today: "I went on the court hoping that, you know, I can perform pretty good and put up a good match so I don't lose in 45 minutes. Today I actually went out there hoping that I can win."
The Croat demonstrated this immediately, opening up the court with a flashing forehand, successful forays to the net - she won five out of seven points in the forecourt in the first set - and a knack for ending points with sudden dropshots. Svitolina, meanwhile, was misfiring, leaking 12 unforced errors in the opener. One of those conceded the first break of the match and, though Martic wobbled with four errors of her own to hand the lead back immediately, the Ukrainian regifted it with a double fault to fall behind 3-5. Martic, one of the strongest servers left in the draw who had already fired down a tournament-leading 120mph delivery, made no mistake in closing the set out with another unreturnable serve.
The 26-year-old started the second set where she'd left off, breaking an error-strewn Svitolina to love. Thereafter, though, the No.5 seed began to activate her brick wall mode as Martic's first serve percentage dropped (from 76% to 65%) and her error count doubled (from seven in the opening set to 14 in the second). The qualifier, whose ability to mix up backhand slices and drives had kept Svitolina off-balance thus far, found her sliced strokes in particular landing too short and too high, and her 22-year-old opponent took full advantage. Despite taking a medical time-out at the end of the set - which she would attribute afterwards to a "shooting pain" in her back - the No.5 seed had all the momentum going into the third set.
But if Martic had let her frustration show in the second set, arguing extensively with the umpire over a mark in the clay and, a few games later, throwing her racquet after another error, she put it all behind her in the decider. Solid play and improved placement on the backhand slice set the scene for a wonderful, and brilliantly-timed, purple patch when leading 3-2. Martic unleashed big returns, consecutive backhand winners driven down the line and via delicate dropshot to take herself to the brink of victory at 5-2.
It wasn't to last: serving for a place in her first ever Slam quarterfinal, Martic wobbled with wild errors, and the No.5 seed broke back with a failed dropshot. Handed a lifeline, a rejuvenated Svitolina began to strike her forehand with renewed accuracy and ferocity - and raced through 12 of the last 14 points against a flagging opponent who had spent nine hours and one minute on court (including her three qualifying matches) before today's match to the No.5 seed's own four hours and 34 minutes.
Afterwards, Martic was sad but philosophical in defeat. "It hurts," she admitted. "I mean, I was two points away from winning this match. But on the other hand, I think she played extremely well in those moments... she didn't miss a ball. I cannot say I did something wrong. So from that side, I left it all out there and I'm proud of myself for this match and for the whole tournament."
For her part, Svitolina attributed her ability to turn the match around to a tactical change. "I just said, Okay, you know what? I'm going to just put the ball in. I'm going to be aggressive," she said. "I'm going to be just win the match, make winners... I changed some things the way I played."
Describing her switch down 2-5 in the final set, the Rome champion said: "I had like mode on again, Svitolina mode back." Expanding on the definition of this, she continued: "I just try to find myself into this zone where I don't do much unforced errors and still play aggressive."