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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Wednesday, May 1, 2024


Elena Rybakina saved two match points at 2-5 sparking a five-game surge for a 4-6, 7-6(4), 7-5 comeback win over Yulia Putintseva in Madrid.

Photo credit: Clive Brunskill/Getty

Staring down two match points in the final set, Elena Rybakina found herself fighting a failing battle on multiple fronts.

Befuddled by the soft touch of nemesis Yulia Putintseva, Rybakina was losing longer rallies, struggling to keep the ball between the lines and fighting frustration that saw her toss her racquet in angst.

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Beating back all challenges, Rybakina saved two match points at 2-5 sparking a five-game surge for a 4-6, 7-6(4), 7-5 comeback conquest of her Kazakh compatriot to battle into her sixth semifinal of the season in Madrid.

This was one wild thrill ride that spanned two hours, 48 minutes.

The scrappy Putintseva was one point from her first career WTA 1000 semifinal before Rybakina dug down deep with bold play to save both match points.

On the first match point, Rybakina ran down a drop shot and showed fine feel angling off a running reply. On the second match point, Rybakina zapped her sixth ace to erase it.

From 2-5 down, Rybakina raced through five straight games and 16 of the final 20 points lifting her level to defeat Putintseva for the first time in three meetings.

“It was a really tough match,” said Rybakina, who hit 45 winners and 54 unforced errors. “I knew it was not going to be easy. Of course, I was hoping I was going to start the match better.

"But I was hitting a lot of unforced errors. It was not easy to always coming back, coming back, pushing through.

“Yeah, at 5-2, I think that I redirect all the emotions, all the frustration and kept on playing. And the momentum shifted. Yulia started to be a little bit more angry and some mistakes of course helped me and then I just kept on playing. So I’m really happy.”

Spare a thought for Putintseva, who can be a lightning rod for criticism because of her volatile racquet-throwing tantrums, trash talking bravado and sometimes ice-cold handshakes.

Today, a crafty Putintseva protected serve with vigor, saving nine of 12 break points, showed precise placement and won one more point overall (114 to 113) and put herself in position for her biggest win of the year. After this deeply disappointing defeat, Putintseva took out her rage on her racquet smashing it to the court four times before tossing it aside.

A resilient Rybakina blocked out the swirling stress, focused on the ball and showed her instinct for imposing first-strike tennis to ignite her comeback.

Rybakina raised her record to a WTA-best 30-4 on the season, including an 8-0 clay-court record. Rybakina, who is now 13-1 in three-setters in 2024, will face either world No. 2 and reigning champion Aryna Sabalenka or 17-year-old sensation Mirra Andreeva for a spot in the Madrid final.

Every time Rybakina has played a semifinal this season, she's won it.

“Of course if it's’ gonna be Aryna, [she’s] a great champion it’s gonna be a tough battle which we always have,” Rybakina said. “And if it’s gonna be Mirra of course she’s young, she has nothing to lose. I think these kind of players are dangerous, you never know what to expect. I’m looking forward to it, hopefully I can recover.”

Putintseva is an arrhythmical artist who seldom gives Rybakina the same ball twice in a row. 

At times, Rybakina did the right thing attacking net, but was challenged by both Putintseva’s low passes and the direction of her volleys. Rybakina sometimes volleyed deep in the court providing Putintseva with another shot at the pass rather than playing the drop volley or short angle volley.

The feisty Putintseva was effective mixing spin, speed and height of her shots. Putintseva kept Rybakina off-balance sometime following up a bounding shoulder-high topspin drives with slithering slices that crawled across the dirt.

The world No. 50 was driving the ball deep in the fifth game denying Rybakina the space to step into the court. When Rybakina flew a forehand long, Putintseva scored the first break for 3-2.

The 2022 Wimbledon winner thrives off pace and wasn’t getting a whole lot of it against Putintseva, who held at 30 to back up the break for 4-2.

Serving for the first set, Putintseva drew a series of scattered errors from her compatriot holding at love for a one-set lead.

It was the fifth consecutive set Putintseva won over Rybakina in this rivalry.

Down 1-2 in the second set, Rybakina attacked on break point and sifted a short volley winner breaking back in the fourth game.

“If you want to win this match you have to suffer a bit,” Rybakina’s coach Stefan Vukov told her. “If you want to go for the forehand you have to really go through it. Come on, let’s go!”

Playing with more patience and intensity, Rybakina rolled a forehand winner crosscourt to hold at 15 for 3-2.

The most surprising aspect through a set-and-a-half was how tough the 5’4” Putintseva was holding serve. Putinteseva had saved six of seven break points by the time she held to even the second set, 4-all.

When Rybakina netted a volley from nearly right on top of the net, coach Vukov told her “you’re playing against yourself, come on!”

A tense Rybakina double faulted to face break point at 30-40. Locking down in the following rally, Rybakina stopped stress. When Putintseva missed a backhand return, the fourth seed had the hard-fought hold for 5-4.

Putintseva was serving to force the tiebreaker when Rybakina opened up the court with a sharp-angled backhand for break and set point. Putintseva showed guts going for a forehand drop shot from fairly deep in the court. Rybakina caught up to the ball in plenty of time but over hit a forehand giving her compatriot a reprieve.

Festering frustration boiled over: Rybakina slammed her red Yonex to the red clay after missing a shot. Putintseva dodged the dilemma holding to force the tiebreaker.

Dragging Rybakina to net with a dropper, Putintseva put up a lame lob and Rybakina blocked a high forehand volley to go up 4-2 in the breaker.

Throughout her career, Rybakina is more confident hitting the forehand crosscourt. She changed direction shrewdly smacking a forehand winner down the line for 5-3. Putintseva lifted a lob wide to face double-set point at 4-6.

This time, Rybakina was ready for the drop shot. The fourth seed ran it down, drilled a forehand crosscourt then blocked a high backhand volley to snatch the tiebreaker and force a final set after one hour, 51 minutes.

Applying third-set pressure, Putintseva earned two break points in the fourth game. Rybakina committed to moving forward and caught a bit of a break on a Putintseva errant pass to save the second break point.

An irate Putintseva wound up and splattered her blue Babolat to the court at opportunity lost. Rybakina rolled a backhand down the line holding for 2-all.

Resetting, Putintseva punched a backhand pass crosscourt for break point. When Rybakina stuck a backhand into the top of the net, Putintseva had the break and a 4-2 lead.

Adding insult to injury, Putintseva successfully drop-shotted twice in a row making Rybakina run without reward. Digging out a running forehand, Putintseva put a low ball back in the service box and Rybakina netted a half volley.

A frustrated Rybakina missed a wild backhand return as Putintseva strode to her chair up 5-2 on the 2022 Wimbledon winner.

Shoving Rybakina to the very ledge of loss, Putintseva carved out a superb drop shot on the first match point. But Rybakina ran it down and shoveled a brilliant sharp-angled soft reply to save it. Rybakina ripped her sixth ace to erase the second match point, eventually holding for 3-5.

That rousing stand stirred Rybakina, who flipped a forehand down the line that helped her earn triple break point. Bouncing the ball excessively before her second serve, Putintseva looked tight and it showed when she pushed a drive long to drop serve in the ninth game.

Stepping in and striking her kill shot, the two-handed backhand, with command, Rybakina was hitting her nemesis off the court at times. Rybakina rolled eight of 10 points earning a love break for her fourth straight game and a 6-5 lead.

Minutes earlier, the world No. 50 was one point from her first WTA 1000 semifinal.

As Rybankina served for the semis, Putintseva yanked at the neck of her long-sleeve t-shirt as if physically clawing for breathing room.

A revitalized Rybakina raced out to triple match point.

"Be brave! Be Brave” Rybakina's coach advised after she double-faulted away the second match point.

Rybakina set up the forehand sitter she wanted but slapped it into net to waste a third match point.

“Elena be brave! Be Brave!,” coach Vukov shouted.

Rybakina showed courage when it counted slashing a forehand for a fourth match point.

A big serve out wide drew the return error as Rybakina withstood this rollercoaster ride with one of her most spirited comebacks to continue this Madrid trek.

A gutted Putintseva wound up and smashed her racquet off the red dirt four times in a row. Satisfied by the contorted head, she tossed the battered stick aside—-putting this defeat behind her will take some time.

Once again, Rybakina showed guts going for her shots and prowess as a third-set closer, qualities she will try to apply in the semifinals.


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