STRASBOURG, France -- After a grueling three hours and 35 minutes of play, No.3 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova of Russia overcame No.5 seed Dominika Cibulkova of Slovakia in three tiebreak sets, 6-7(5), 7-6(3), 7-6(6), to claim the Internationaux de Strasbourg title on Saturday, saving two championship points in the process.
"It’s a final, so definitely I was saying to myself, ‘I’m going to give everything out there, and even if she wins, then that’s because she’s better,’" Pavlyuchenkova told the press, after the final. "So, even until the last point, I gave everything I had."
"Until the end, it was tough to believe I could win this match, because to me it felt like I was always behind," Pavlyuchenkova continued. "It’s unbelievable. I think it’s maybe the longest match I’ve had on the tour, and to have a final like that is impressive."
Pavlyuchenkova was only 4-9 on the year coming into Strasbourg, but picked up five wins in a row to notch her 12th career WTA singles title, and become only the second Russian to claim the Strasbourg trophy, following Maria Sharapova in 2010.
Frequent opponents Cibulkova and Pavlyuchenkova were meeting for the 11th time; it was the Slovak who held the head-to-head advantage by 7-3, and won three of their four matches over the last two years. But this was their first encounter in a WTA final, and Pavlyuchenkova moved past the daunting head-to-head record, slamming 73 winners en route to an epic victory.
Pavlyuchenkova also hit 13 aces, and had 49 unforced errors -- a relatively low number in comparison to her winners. Cibulkova had 34 winners and 41 unforced errors, but stayed completely level with Pavlyuchenkova until the very last points of the tilt. The Russian won 136 points in the match, while the Slovak won 134.
The first set was replete with twisty, lengthy games, as both hard-hitting players were constantly trying to get the upper hand in rallies with their strong groundstrokes. Pavlyuchenkova was on top in the early going, holding a break point in the opening game of the match, and later clinching the first break at 2-2 by forcing an error from Cibulkova with a lethal groundstroke.
But Cibulkova swiftly struck back in the next game. A powerful service return by the Slovak brought up break point, which she converted by successfully chasing down a drop shot and putting it away. At this juncture, the match was level at 3-3, and it was anyone’s guess who would walk away with the opening set.
Pavlyuchenkova was in danger in her next service game as well, having to face a break point, but the Russian staved it off with a unreturned serve, and she regrouped to hold for 4-4 with an ace. That would be the final break point for either player in the first set, as they methodically advanced to the tiebreak after over an hour of scintillating power tennis.
It was Pavlyuchenkova who grabbed the first lead in the tiebreak, going up 3-1 with a stunning forehand passing shot down the line for a winner. But Cibulkova hung with her, and even though the Russian eventually led 5-2, the deficit represented only one mini-break.
Cibulkova leveled the tiebreak at 5-5 by forcing an error with a huge service return. Another big forehand dragged another miscue out of Pavlyuchenkova, and the Slovak was suddenly at set point. Cibulkova returned a backhand with a robust backhand of her own, and took her fifth point in a row to win the hard-fought opening set.
Any momentum Cibulkova had acquired from that grueling set seemed to disappear, though, as Pavlyuchenkova started the second set with great vigor. The Russian claimed a quick break for a 2-0 advantage, and held at love with an ace for 3-0. Pavlyuchenkova reached break point in the next game to take a 4-0 lead, and the set appeared to be quickly slipping away from Cibulkova.
But the Slovak recovered, fending off the break point to hold for 3-1, and then slammed a service return winner to break back to 3-2, putting the set back on serve. Pavlyuchenkova found herself up a break again at 5-3, but Cibulkova was sturdy on return when the Russian served for the set, and the Slovak clawed her way back on serve once more.
Pavlyuchenkova then held two set points when Cibulkova was serving down 5-6, but the Slovak repelled both with well-timed big serves, and, once again, the players advanced to a tiebreak to settle a set. A Pavlyuchenkova forehand winner at 3-3 gave her a crucial lead, and, this time, it was the Russian who closed out a tiebreak in style, winning the final five points to tie the match at one set apiece.
The match was a toss-up as the combatants began the deciding set, having already plowed through two hours and 15 minutes of play. The players exchanged breaks twice on their way to 4-4, neither giving an inch with respect to their rocketing groundstrokes. Both power players were hitting as aggressively as they had been during the earlier stages of the match.
Cibulkova held for 5-4 with an ace, and used that to propel herself into initial command of the next game. A backhand error into the net by Pavlyuchenkova suddenly gave the Slovak double championship point. A screaming crosscourt winner right on the sideline by the Russian saved the first, and she overcame the second as well, barely holding for 5-5 and keeping her hopes alive.
Cibulkova briefly faltered on serve but saved three break points at 5-5, and, as it was seemingly destined, they hit 6-6, and advanced to the third and final tiebreak of the day. Cibulkova reached the first changeover with a 4-2 lead via a forehand winner down the line, and crossed sides hoping to hoist the trophy after the earlier match point misses.
Stunningly, Pavlyuchenkova then won 4 points in a row, mainly due to her forehand, and garnered two championship points of her own. Cibulkova saved the first with a service return winner, and a solid unreturned serve on the next point allowed her to tie the breaker at 6-6.
But after a second change of ends, the Russian hit a backhand service return winner to set up match point number three. On the following point, the Slovak hit a rally backhand just barely wide, sending Pavlyuchenkova into euphoric celebration as she knew the title was hers after a staggering amount of work.