New mother Elina Svitolina continued her incredible grand slam return by defeating Daria Kasatkina to reach the quarter-finals of the French Open.
The Ukrainian gave birth to daughter Skai in October and played her first tournament in more than a year at the beginning of April.
She arrived in Paris on the back of a WTA title in Strasbourg and, watched by husband Gael Monfils, extended her winning run to eight matches with a 6-4 7-6 (5) success against ninth seed Kasatkina.
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“Definitely I wouldn’t dream about this when I was giving birth in October last year,” said Svitolina.
“It’s unbelievable for me to be able to compete here and to get to the quarter-final is special. Hopefully I can push further. I’m really motivated to give my everything for the next matches.”
The former world number three, who can match her best ever grand slam run by making the semi-finals, overcame nerves at the end, twice failing to serve it out, before clinching victory in a tie-break.
Svitolina spent four years in the top 10 and is enjoying being able to play without so much expectation, saying: “I think this is one of the things that I noticed that right now I don’t have that pressure that I used to have before.
“Of course, me personally I put pressure for myself because I want to win a slam. This is the ultimate goal for me.
“But definitely not the pressure from outside. No one expects that I’m going to come into Roland Garros and make quarter-final at the beginning of the tournament.
“That’s why I feel like this really helps me. I feel almost like I’m 17 again coming on the tour fresh. I’m not defending any points. Not here, not next week. I feel more free.”
Kasatkina has been the most outspoken Russian player against the invasion of Ukraine and earned praise from Svitolina ahead of the contest.
She knew Svitolina would stick to the Ukrainians’ policy of not shaking hands with Belarusian and Russian opponents, though, and gave a quick thumbs-up before heading straight to her chair.
In the last eight, the 28-year-old will face her third consecutive opponent from the aggressor nations in the shape of second seed Aryna Sabalenka, who recovered from letting a 5-0 lead slip in the first set to defeat Sloane Stephens 7-6 (5) 6-4 in an entertaining first women’s night session match.
Afterwards, Belarusian Sabalenka again refused to do a press conference, having cited mental health concerns and feeling unsafe following tense exchanges with a Ukrainian journalist.
Asked about the contest, Svitolina said: “I have played the last two matches against Russian players so it will not change, everything will be same. So I’m used to it now.”
One Russian is through to the last eight, with Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova arguably even more of a surprise than Svitolina.
The 31-year-old achieved the best result of her career here two years ago by reaching the final but underwent knee surgery last year and is ranked down at 333.
She recently lost 6-0 6-0 to Iga Swiatek in Rome but took out her third seed of the week with a 3-6 7-6 (3) 6-3 victory over Elise Mertens.
“I had a fear and doubts that maybe I will never win a match again,” said Pavlyuchenkova. “Maybe I will never get my good form back or I will never be fit again. What if I start playing again and the pain comes back and my knee is bad again?
“But I guess this motivation and this desire of coming back and competing again and being on these big stages again and playing three-hour matches like today, there was a lot more weight on that. So that kind of pushed me.
“I believed, I worked so hard and, even with all the failures that I had this year – and there were sometimes ridiculous matches that I lost – still kept on believing, working hard, and just persistence and patience.”
Pavlyuchenkova will next meet Czech Karolina Muchova, who reached her first French Open quarter-final with a 6-4 6-3 win over Elina Avanesyan.