FLORIANOPOLIS, Brazil - Monica Niculescu was in quite the predicament in her first round match on Monday, losing the first set to Anabel Medina Garrigues and facing triple match point down 6-3 in the second set tie-break. But she found a way out of that one and on Saturday night, five days and four more wins later, the Romanian was holding her first WTA title at the inaugural WTA Brasil Tennis Cup.
For obvious reasons, Niculescu's three-hour, eight-minute, 57 76(7) 61 comeback win against Medina Garrigues in the first round was a game-changer for the tournament - it may have given Niculescu the new breath of life that would eventually take her to the title. Watch her post-match reaction here:
Three straight set wins later - 61 61, 63 62 and 60 62, respectively - Niculescu was in her third WTA final, playing for her first WTA title. But on the other side of the net was a player with the same motivations - Olga Puchkova was also looking for her first WTA title in her third WTA final, and she had a string of big wins to her name from earlier in the week too, having picked off No.3 seed Kirsten Flipkens in the first round and No.1 seed Venus Williams in the semis. The Russian was ready to go.
Niculescu's mix of spins, paces and angles was too much for Puchkova in the early goings, as she built a 62 20 lead; Puchkova fought back though, winning six of the next eight games to take the second set and push the match to a third. Niculescu came out strong again, building a 4-2 lead, when Puchkova fought back again, evening it at 4-all - but Niculescu pounced one last time, breaking the Russian at 15 and holding her own serve at 15 to complete a near-two hour, 62 46 64 championship victory.
"I was very tired and she was playing very well - it got very tough at the end," Niculescu said. "But I just kept fighting. I knew I had to be more aggressive but still think a lot on the court, and I was able to gain control of the match at the end again. I was very tired, so I am very happy I could win tonight."
Niculescu was asked about the feeling of winning her first WTA title. "I competed in two finals before and lost to Azarenka and Venus, and today I finally managed to win one - I'm so happy," she said. "I felt so tired on the court but really, really wanted to win, and right now I can't really explain how happy I feel. I'll just relax tonight and go to bed, and tomorrow I'll think about what I've done here.
"I think tomorrow I'll realize what I've accomplished."
Niculescu and Puchkova were playing for the first time on the WTA, though they met on the court once before. "She was telling me that we played in the juniors, though I don't remember it!" Niculescu said. "But we are good friends. She's very nice. I'm very happy I played against her in the final.
"We've been talking every day and can't believe we made the final. I hope the audience enjoyed it."
And will the Romanian be back in Brazil next year? "Definitely I will come here next year to defend my title," she said. "The transport, the food, the hotel - it was all fantastic. It was also near the mall and the beach is beautiful too. I had all I needed in Florianopolis this week - everything was perfect."
The doubles final was played Friday, with No.1 seeds Medina Garrigues and Yaroslava Shvedova beating Anne Keothavong and Valeria Savinykh, 60 64. Medina Garrigues and Shvedova won their first WTA doubles title together - Medina Garrigues now has 19 WTA doubles titles, Shvedova seven.