PARIS (Reuters) -World number two Aryna Sabalenka weathered a spectacular first set implosion to beat American Sloane Stephens 7-6(5) 6-4 on Sunday and advance to the French Open quarter-finals.
The Belarusian, who will face Ukraine's Elina Svitolina in the last eight, gave Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, no hope at the start, unleashing a barrage of baseline missiles that left the 30-year-old stunned and looking around for help.
Sabalenka, the hardest-hitting player on the women's tour and the 2023 Australian Open champion, raced to a 5-0 lead with Stephens winning a total of just eight points.
But the American, no stranger to the Paris big stage after reaching the final in 2018, was not done yet, clawing her way back and saving a set point at 5-2 to cut the deficit.
With her own first serve wilting, Sabalenka, in complete freefall by now, missed another two set points at 5-4 on Stephens' serve before her opponent spectacularly levelled and then held to take it to a tiebreak.
The Belarusian, looking win a second Grand Slam trophy, managed to pull herself together at the last moment, clinching the first set on her fourth opportunity.
She cut down on the unforced errors in the second set but again Stephens battled back from 4-2 down to level before Sabalenka broke again to go 5-4 up and serve out the match.
"It was crazy match. I'm super happy with this win," Sabalenka said in comments given to women's governing body WTA after she refused to do a post-game interview for the second time in a row.
The Belarusian had said on Friday she had felt unsafe with journalists' questions focusing on her country's support of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and had again released comments through the WTA.
"It was really tough battle and that she came back from 0-5, and it says a lot that she's a great fighter," Sabalenka said.
"I think it was just like few key moments which I didn't finish right, and then she (Stephens) started to believe in herself a little bit more.
"I was just keep telling myself that I have been through a lot of tough situation, and I went through all of those craziness, so I'm strong enough to handle this tiebreak and that gave me so much power, so much belief."
She will have to keep her cool in the next round as well against Svitolina, who has repeatedly called on all Russian and Belarusian players to be banned over the Russian invasion of her country.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; Editing by Ken Ferris and Pritha Sarkar)