Maria Sharapova claimed a hat-trick of Stuttgart titles on Sunday after coming from behind to win a three-set battle royal with Ana Ivanovic in the final.
Having won the 2012 and 2013 titles there, the 27-year-old Sharapova was made to work hard for her 13th consecutive win on Stuttgart’s clay-courts for the 30th final win of her career before over-powering Ivanovic to claim a 3-6, 6-4, 6-1 victory in just over two hours.
“That was a tough bit of work,” said Sharapova, who has won all four Grand Slam titles. “I have always believed in my chances and the fighting spirit is something that comes from within me.”
This was the first time Sharapova has won a third title at an individual tournament and comes on the back of last year’s shoulder injury. “This time around it’s been extremely tough, that’s why this is so special,” admitted Sharapova.
The Russian collects the winners cheque of €96,774 (Dh491,000) and a brand-new sports car.
“I will need to build a new garage to get all the cars in,” she joked as she collected her third Porsche sports car in as many years from the tournament director.
It is the Russian’s first clay-court tournament in her build-up to the French Open, having lost to Serena Williams in last year’s final. On her part, Ivanovic lauded Sharapova’s performance.
“It was always a close match. It was always a few close balls to decide each game, and it went on the whole match,” she said.
“She’s a great player, and that’s what happens when you play against great players in big matches. You need to use your opportunities. But there’s always next time.”
Having been taken to three sets by the Czech Republic’s Lucie Safarova in her first-round match, Sharapova had swept into the final with straight set wins over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, top-seed Agnieszka Radwanska, then claycourt specialist Sara Errani in the semi-finals.
But Ivanovic, the ninth seed, made the Russian dig deep and the 26-year-old wasted no time asserting herself over Sharapova, racing into a 5-0 lead in the first set before the defending champion responded, but the Serbian held her serve to take the first set.
Ivanovic went 3-1 up in the second but the match’s momentum turned against her when Sharapova broke her, then fought her way back to take the set.
Ivanovic had been chasing her first win over the Russian since the 2007 French Open semi-final, but the Serbian ran out of steam and sixth seed Sharapova showed her experience to win 11 of the last 13 games.
World No1 Rafael Nadal suffered his first defeat in Barcelona since 2003 yesterday when compatriot Nicolas Almagro ended his 41-match winning run in the Spanish city.
Top seed Nadal, the eight-time champion, lost 2-6, 7-6 (7/5), 6-4 to Almagro in a quarter-final lasting 13 minutes short of three hours.
Nadal, who lost in the Monte Carlo Masters quarter-finals to David Ferrer last week, had last been beaten in Barcelona when he was just 15 years old.
In a span of eight days, Nadal has now lost as many clay-court matches as he has in any single year since 2004.
In fact, he once went 25 months without losing on clay – a run of 81 matches.
Despite the defeat, 27-year-old Nadal refused to panic with the defence of his French Open crown starting in just a month’s time.
He said losing a tennis match was nothing in comparison to the death of former Barcelona football coach Tito Vilanova who lost his battle with cancer at the age of 45.
“To lose is not a drama. What has happened to Tito Vilanova is. We are left with his example and I send my support to his family,” said Nadal.
“I was better in parts of the match, but sport is like that. It was my turn to lose and I congratulate Nico.”
Nadal will next defend his Madrid and Rome Masters claycourt titles – two of the 10 tournaments he won in 2013 after a seven-month injury lay-off.
He could lose his world No1 ranking with Novak Djokovic set to pounce.
The victory was 28-year-old Almagro’s first over Nadal in 11 meetings, a series which included a straight sets loss in the 2013 Barcelona final.
He needed two match points to secure his shock triumph while surviving 47 unforced errors. The sixth seed had also been a break down in the deciding set.
Nadal’s last defeat at the tournament was in the second round to compatriot Alex Corretja in 2003 before he skipped the 2004 event through injury.
His loss of the second set to Almagro was the first he had dropped at the Real Club de Tenis since 2008 and it ended a run of 44 consecutive sets.
“Winning the last point I felt happy for all of my team,” said Almagro who broke Nadal three times in the final set.
He had trailed 3-1 in the decider and had been 3-1 down in the second set tiebreaker.
“This victory could mark a turning point in my career. Now I need to prepare for tomorrow’s match.”
Almagro, the world No20, will face Santiago Giraldo of Colombia for a place in the final.
Giraldo went through when Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber retired with a left thigh injury while trailing 4-3 in the second set having dropped the first 6-4.
Japan’s Kei Nishikori continued his impressive return to action after a three week absence due to a groin injury as he beat 12th seed Marin Cilic 6-1, 6-3 to reach the semi-finals.
Nishikori, seeded fourth, was ruthless in the opening set as he broke the big Croat’s serve three times.
The second set was more of a contest, but the world No17 still had too much as he sealed victory in just over an hour to register his best ever run in Barcelona.
Next up for Nishikori will be a meeting with Latvian ninth seed Ernests Gulbis after he secured a third semi-final appearance of the season with a 6-1, 6-4 win over Russia’s Teimuraz Gabashvili.
The fact that tennis is ageing is not lost on anyone as we’re constantly seeing more and more 30+ year olds winning big titles and enjoying breakthroughs on both the men’s and women’s tours.
But the WTA has been offering up some glimmer of hope for the younger generation every once in a while and only a week after 20-year-old Caroline Garcia won her first tour-level title by upsetting Jelena Jankovic in the Bogota final, Croatian teen Donna Vekic did the same to Dominika Cibulkova in Kuala Lumpur for her maiden triumph.
Vekic is the first female player below 18 years old to win a WTA title since Vania King won Bangkok in 2006.
But she’s not the only teenager to make some noise on the ladies’ tour recently.
Last July, Elina Svitolina won her first WTA trophy in Baku as an 18-year-old, and the Ukrainian – who is the youngest player in the top-40 – has impressed lately with her fourth round showing in Miami and third round in Charleston.
Belinda Bencic, the 17-year-old who is dubbed the new ‘Swiss Miss’ in reference to Martina Hingis, made the semis in Charleston as a qualifier, taking out Maria Kirilenko and Sara Errani en route, to enter the top-100 for the first time.
So although the WTA’s top-10 have an average age of over 26 and include no teenagers, Bencic, Svitolina and Vekic are three young prospects that are easing the minds of those worried about the future of women’s tennis.
Add 20-year-olds Eugenie Bouchard and Garcia in the mix along with American pair Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys and it seems we have a healthy youthful group coming up in the ranks.
While none of these are a 14-year-old Jennifer Capriati cracking the top-10 or a 16-year-old Hingis winning the Australian Open, they’re still the cream of the crop carving a place for themselves in an era where 30 is the new 18 in tennis.
Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer are the top seeds in Barcelona while seven of the women’s top-10 are playing in Stuttgart, headlined by top seed Agnieszka Radwanska.
Maria Sharapova, begins her title defence today with a tough first round against Lucie Safarova.
Grigor Dimitrov is a tournament top seed for the first time as he leads the pack in Bucharest while Daniela Hantuchova is top dog in Marrakech, where Tunisian Ons Jabeur is also in action.