Scraping through the second set against a gritty Nicole Gibbs, Karolina Pliskova turned to a familiar confidante before beginning the decider.
Touching her sweat-streaked forehead to the blue back wall, Pliskova looked like a woman in deep meditation.
The world No. 1 embraced the wall to end the second set.
She served like she was trying to knock it over in the third.
Pliskova pumped eight of her 11 aces during the final two sets fending off the American qualifier, 2-6, 6-3, 6-4, to reach the US Open third round for the third time in the past four years.
“In some matches you need the serve more than normally,” Pliskova told ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi aftereward. “Today, I didn’t feel the game was that good from the baseline from my side. I’m just happy I had the serve.”
The WTA ace leader pitched a near serving shutout in the final set. Pliskova served 68 percent and won all 17 of her first-serve points in the decider.
Starting the day knowing 15 of the Top 32 seeds were already ousted infused Pliskova with both ambition and jitters.
The top seed knows she has a favorable draw and can retain the world No. 1 ranking with a run to her second straight Flushing Meadows final.
“It’s easier for them to play me than me to play them,” Pliskova said. “I Feel the pressure myself. I wanted to win. I know I have kind of a good draw. Obviously, everyone is playing their best tennis against me and I felt that today.”
And if Pliskova came on court feeling overconfident, can you blame her?
The lanky Czech who oozes easy power from her smooth serve and menacing forehand dispensed a double bagel beat-down to Gibbs in their last meeting.
Grinding through three qualifying matches—including three-set wins over former Top 10 player Patty Schnyder and big-serving Naomi Brady—had Gibbs grooved from the start of this match.
Playing with taping around her left thigh, Gibbs was running beautifully and created the right blend of defense and aggression through a set and a half.
It wasn’t that Pliskova played poorly in the opening set, Gibbs simply beat her in the baseline exchanges in a dynamic opening set.
“I actually thought that more often than not I was the aggressor in the first set, which, you know, is something I was looking to take away from her if I could,” Gibbs said. “And then up until about 3-all in the second set, I felt like we were pretty toe-to-toe, and then I think I just started losing maybe a couple miles per hour on my groundstrokes and maybe started to feel the weight of the moment a little bit more, and she was able to take advantage of that and close it out in three.”
Peering at the court beneath her canary-colored visor, Gibbs staved off a break point in her opening serve game of the second set.
Sliding her seventh ace down the middle, Pliskova held for 3-2.
The first true sign of tension came when Gibbs spit up a cluster of errors pasting a flat forehand into net to hand the break and a 5-3 lead to the 2016 finalist.
Serving for the set, bad luck preceded good fortune for Pliskova, who plastered a forehand off the line that was called long. Hawk-Eye showed the shot was good and Pliskova drew a fortuitous net-cord winner for set point.
Sharp judgement put Gibbs in a winning position through a set-and-a-half but she scattered another error ending the 68-minute second set.
Showing guile and angle, Gibbs drew the power player forward with a drop shot then chipped a one-handed backhand around the net post that kissed the sideline. That bit of improvised brilliance helped her hold for 2-1.
Mixing in loopy topspin with flatter backhand drives, Gibbs teased out a netted forehand for her first break point of the decider. She had a good look at her favored two-handed backhand but punched it into the net trying to change direction.
Withstanding that drama, Pliskova darted a 109 mph ace out wide to level after four games.
Cruising through serve in the fifth game, Gibbs hit the wall in the seventh. As errors crept in, she banged a backhand down the line wide for triple break point. Trying to take the forehand early, Gibbs found the net instead.
The love break put Pliskova up 4-3.
Tearing through eight of nine points, Pliskova finally gained breathing room on the American backing up the break. Pliskova served out a one hour, 46-minute victory at love moving on to face 27th-seeded Chinese Zhang Shuai for a spot in the round of 16.
“I think maybe this match can help me in the next matches just to play better, feel better,” Pliskova said. “Maybe this is the match what I needed in this tournament.
“I’m feeling well actually in the practice. It’s more about the mental side. So just, you know, to keep my nerves little bit down. Obviously, yeah, I think the pressure, maybe I put it even more on myself than the other do. But I still want to, you know, play well and keep winning. So hopefully I can do that.”