BRISBANE, Australia (AFP) - World number one Angelique Kerber survived a big scare from Australian wildcard Ashleigh Barty to progress to the quarter-finals of the Brisbane International on Wednesday (Jan 4).
The reigning Australian and US Open champion held on to beat the impressive Barty in three sets 6-3, 2-6, 6-3.
Barty, the 2011 junior Wimbledon champion, walked away from the sport at the end of 2014 and only returned for four tournaments in 2016.
However, the 20-year-old from Brisbane is now back on the tour full-time and she showed local fans what they have been missing with a brave fight against Kerber.
Showing no nerves, Barty opened an early lead, only for Kerber to claw her way back and claim the opening set.
Barty again skipped away to an early lead in the second set but this time an error-prone Kerber was unable to recover.
However, the German cut out the mistakes to break Barty early in the final set and held on to win in one hour, 44 minutes and set up a quarter-final against Ukraine's Elina Svitolina.
"It's always tough to play a match after such a long break, and Ashleigh was playing very well from the first point," Kerber said.
"It's always different starting the year, and the first matches are always tough.
"You have to get again into the rhythm and play a lot of matches to feel your game."
Second seeded Slovakian Dominika Cibulkova was also forced to dig deep before beating China's Zhang Shuai 2-6, 6-4, 6-4.
After losing the first set Cibulkova seemed in control when she took the second and went 4-0 up in the third.
But Zhang fought back to 4-4 before the Slovakian claimed the last two games to move into the quarter-finals.
"I knew it was not going to be easy. I didn't expect to play my best tennis today, but, you know, I'm happy I managed to come back into the match," Cibulkova said.
"She was playing really well, but then I started to use my weapons much more. I started to be much more aggressive on the return with my forehands, and I didn't let her in the game."
Cibulkova enjoyed a breakthrough 2016, winning the WTA Finals in October when she beat Kerber in the decider.
She started the year at a career high five in the world and said it was difficult adjusting to the expectations that were now on her.
"You can feel the expectation and the pressure - this is what I'm trying to deal with," she said.
She now plays Frenchwoman Alize Cornet in the quarter-finals, a player she lost to in their last two meetings.
Two-time Grand Slam singles winner Svetlana Kuznetsova ended 16-year-old Australian qualifier Destanee Aiava's run with a comfortable 6-4, 6-3 win, while Italian eighth seed Roberta Vinci looked equally at ease as she downed Japan's Misaki Doi 6-4, 6-2.