Karolina Pliskova leaned into a crosscourt backhand, erupting in a primal scream to end the struggle.
On a day in which nothing came easy, celebrating was satisfying.
The top seed teetered, took treatment for a cranky arm issue and fought off a match point in the second set squeezing past Zhang Shuai 3-6, 7-5, 6-4, into the US Open fourth round.
“I just try to fight even if my game is not 100 percent, and it’s not 100 percent, actually, this week,” Pliskova said. “But I’m winning, so that’s the main thing.”
The 2016 US Open finalist kept her quest to retain the world No. 1 ranking alive. Pliskova will try to find her form against American Jennifer Brady in the fourth round.
Brady belted 46 winners outlasting Romanian Monica Niculescu, 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (3), advancing to a Grand Slam round of 16 for the second time this season following her run to the Australian Open fourth round.
An erratic Pliskova has hardly been convincing through week one, but she has been unwavering.
While she’s not striking the ball with the precision she’s shown winning three tournament titles this season, it’s Pliskova’s survival skills and commitment to the fight that’s propelled her to the round of 16 for the fourth time in her last five majors.
Dropping the opening set for the second straight match, Pliskova rallied winning back-to-back three setters for the first time in a major It came one round after her determined rally past American Nicole Gibbs.
The 27th-seeded Zhang dropped serve to start the match then broke twice in a row taking command of baseline rallies. Zhang was assertive for much of the match, winning 18 of 27 trips to net.
Attacking off a biting serve, Zhang knocked off the volley sealing a one-set lead in which she hit 10 more winners—17 to 7—than Pliskova and won eight of 10 trips to net.
Struggling to put a string of positive points together, Pliskova was misfiring with growing frequency on her favored forehand.
Down match point at 4-5 in the second set, Pliskova found her forehand with a daring strike. One of her biggest forehands of the day saved match point. She broke back then showed stubborn spirit denying three break points for 6-5.
“I didn’t feel like going for my forehand down the line today that much. So I think there was just few of them. Maybe two,” Pliskova said. “One of them was on the match point, so if you’re match point down, you don’t really think, like, about what to play or if to hold it in the rally, so I didn’t have any other choice. I just went through it and prayed that it’s going to be in, and it was in.”
A disconsolate Zhang, knowing she was so near a second career victory over a world No. 1 player, dissolved with a double fault and unruly forehand handing Pliskova the second straight break and second set.
The knock on Pliskova has long been she has the weapons to win majors, but lacks the passion.
Today, the weapons were misfiring, the arm was aching, but the desire was burning.
Pliskova blasted the backhand winner crosscourt ending a two hour, 19-minute struggle.
Progress continues and pressure intensifies for the world No. 1.
“I feel pressure,” Pliskova said. “I was already talking a few days ago. I just want to win. I know all the opponents are behind me, so I should win every match, which is tough.”