RABAT, Morocco - The unseeded Tamara Zidansek dealt out the first upset of the Grand Prix de SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem in the opening match of the tournament, coming from a set and a break down to oust No.3 seed Yulia Putintseva 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in two hours and 22 minutes.
The Slovenian had made her WTA main draw debut here exactly a year ago when she qualified and reached the second round, and the Rabat courts again proved fruitful as she recovered from an erratic start to gain control of her multi-faceted game. For Putintseva, though, the result is an extension of her woes during a tumultuous Fed Cup World Group II play-off against Great Britain two weeks ago.
Then, the Kazakh had experienced both the joy of winning from a double break - and three match points - down in the deciding set against Katie Boulter, and the pain of losing from a double break up - squandering a point for 5-1 - in the deciding set against Johanna Konta, with her team ultimately losing 1-3. Afterwards, the 24-year-old admitted to feeling "scared" on court with "the stress... there was a lot of emotion".
Today, though, she seemed to have shaken all of that off as she deployed the full range of her artillery in a controlled opening act. In a match between two players with a great deal of affinity for the terre battue, it was not unexpected to see plenty of rallies featuring variations in spin, angle and depth, punctuated frequently by dropshots - but it was Putintseva who was better able to spin her web, particularly on the bigger points.
The Slovenian was under the cosh throughout the first set as Putintseva repeatedly made inroads on her serve - and although Zidansek was able to come up with some of her best points to dig herself out of early holes, striking heavy off forehands and out-manoeuvring Putintseva at net to save two break points in her first service games and holding from 0-30 in her next, eventually the pressure was too much. The World No.67's forehand was both weapon and weakness, and despite demonstrating the ability to dictate play with it, that wing was also responsible for too many needless errors - and it sailed wide to give Putintseva a 4-2 lead.
For her part, Putintseva bypassed any such pressure by protecting her serve well enough to avoid facing a break point until the time came to serve out the set - which Zidansek squandered by shanking a backhand. Otherwise, the two-time Roland Garros quarterfinalist was able to mix up her more careful points with bigger hitting when she needed to, sealing the first set with an ace.
More opportunities went begging for Zidansek as the second set got under way, and the 21-year-old seemed to have missed the boat after she squandered three break points in the second game - and then, with her groundstrokes repeatedly finding the net, immediately falling behind a break.
When Putintseva consolidated her lead with two aces to move ahead 3-1, the World No.41 seemed poised to accelerate towards the finishing line. But when Zidansek's trusty off forehand came to the rescue to fend off the double break, the match turned.
Instead of a 4-1 lead, it was now 3-2 - and a few points later 3-3, as Zidansek leveled the score with a break back. The Hua Hin semifinalist had found a way back into the match by coming forward, where she was able to knock off both swashbuckling drive volleys and delicate droppers - and her ground game tightened up concurrently. As the rallies continued to be absorbing all-court affairs, it was increasingly Zidansek coming out on top of them, demonstrating greater patience in terms of injecting pace as the match went on.
Zidansek's stranglehold on the match continued into the decider. The Bol 125K champion was now controlling the flow of the game from all corners of the court, with her forehand, volleys and dropshot all working wonders. Putintseva, who had been so error-free to begin with, was now showing her frustration as both shot selection and execution went awry - and a mounting tally of seven double faults only piled on the pain. Zidansek broke twice and served out at the first opportunity, with a series of heavy forehands sealing victory on her second match point.
Up next, Zidansek will bid to reach her third quarterfinal of the season against either former Wimbledon semifinalist Magdalena Rybarikova or qualifier Ysaline Bonaventure.