Madrid: Karolina Pliskova held off former world number one Victoria Azarenka 6-2, 1-6, 7-5 on Monday to enter the third round of the Madrid Open.
With her win, Pliskova set up a third-round clash with US Open champion Sloane Stephens.
Belarusian veteran Azarenka was featuring in her first tournament on clay for two years and came from 3-0 down to level in the final set against Pliskova.
However the Czech broke serve in the 11th game to win a tense battle.
Another former world number one, Maria Sharapova, continued her revival on clay as she overcame a tense opening set to beat Romania’s Irina-Camelia Begu 7-5, 6-1.
The 31-year-old Russian, who entered the tournament on the back of four consecutive defeats, rallied from 3-1 down before snatching the opening set with a ferocious forehand.
With momentum on her side, Sharapova won 20 of the last 22 points to secure a spot in the last-16.
“Although I didn’t play at my best level in the first set, I pulled it through,” the five-time grand slam champion told a news conference.
“I played some really tough points. I hung in there especially in that final game. Then I really set up a good opportunity for me to step up.
“I thought I did a really good job of that, especially in the last six games. I was very aggressive, played deep, returned a lot better. That will certainly help me moving forward.”
Unseeded Sharapova will next face last year’s finalist Kristina Mladenovic, who edged China’s Zhang Shuai 6-4, 4-6, 6-3.
World number two Caroline Wozniacki survived a scare from Ashleigh Barty, edging the Australian 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 to reach the last-16.
Wozniacki found herself on the brink of defeat as she trailed 4-2 in the final set, but the Dane roared back to claim the last four games and seal the victory.
The 22-year-old Barty was ultimately let down by her groundstrokes in crucial stages of decider as she finished with 54 unforced errors for the match.
Wozniacki will next face former French Open semi-finalist Kiki Bertens, who stunned 15th seed Anastasija Sevastova 6-1, 6-4 in the second round.
“It’ll be another tough match,” said Wozniacki. “She’s a big server with a big forehand. She loves the clay.
“I haven’t had an easy draw here, but I don’t think anyone has. It’s just about going for it again. That’s all I can do, is go out there and do my best.
“I think it’s definitely a surface that I think evens out a lot of the playing field. I think there’s more people that have an opportunity here on this surface.
Djokovic gets confidence-boosting win
Novak Djokovic got the type of win he needed to boost his confidence and get his game back on track.
He beat 20th-ranked Kei Nishikori 7-5, 6-4 in the first round of the Madrid Open on Monday, his highest-ranked win in 10 months.
Djokovic broke serve late in each set to get past Nishikori after nearly two hours in the Magic Box.
“I’m glad that match went my way, but it could have gone his way as well. I managed to play the right shots in the important moments,” Djokovic said. “It was exactly what I needed for my confidence and for my game. I’m just happy to go through this one.”
Coming back from a right elbow injury, Djokovic hasn’t made it to the quarter-finals in his previous five tournaments this year, admitting he returned to tennis too quickly. In his last event, he lost in the third round in Monte Carlo, where Nishikori reached the final.
“I’m just trying to take one day at a time, build my game, because that’s something that I feel is a priority right now,” Djokovic said.
“I was looking forward to these kind of matches, looking to try to win these kind of matches. I couldn’t ask for a better start. I feel much better about everything that is happening on the court and around tennis, in general, with my body than maybe two months ago.”
Djokovic was aggressive from the start, hitting 26 winners against Nishikori, who has made at least the Madrid quarterfinals for the last five years. He was a finalist in 2014, losing to Rafael Nadal.
Top-ranked Nadal will make his tournament debut against Gael Monfils, who defeated qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili 6-2, 3-6, 6-3.
Milos Raonic defeated Nicolas Kicker 6-3, 6-2 to set up a second-round encounter with third-seeded Grigor Dimitrov.
Raonic, a two-time quarter-finalist in Madrid, has contested just two matches on clay in 2018 at the Monte Carlo Masters, where he reached the last-16 after two wins.
However, Raonic was forced to miss his scheduled round of 16 clash with Marin Cilic due to a right knee injury.
In a first-round match between Frenchmen, Benoit Paire hit 39 winners to defeat 18th-ranked Lucas Pouille 6-2, 6-3, advancing to face 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov of Canada.
Veteran Feliciano Lopez defeated Spanish countryman Pablo Andujar 7-6 (4), 6-3.
With inputs from agencies