LUXEMBOURG, Luxembourg - Just like Caroline Wozniacki in Moscow, Venus Williams came into Luxembourg just hoping to play well, not putting any major expectations on herself. But what she ended up with - just like her fellow former No.1 - was the best ending there could have been, coming away a WTA title, her first in over two and a half years - and the 44th of her career.
Unseeded at the International event, Williams had to beat some seeds early on, No.9 seed Mona Barthel in the second round and No.1 seed Roberta Vinci in the quarterfinals, both in straight sets. It was her semifinal match against Andrea Petkovic that stole the show, however, as the two battled more than two and a half hours before Williams finally squeaked through, 57 64 64.
Awaiting Williams in the final would be Monica Niculescu, who - though unseeded herself - definitely had a lot of confidence going into the final, having reached her only previous WTA final here in Luxembourg a year ago.
"I had to work so hard to get to the final - the match against Andrea was so challenging, and the two matches before as well, and even my first round I had to stay really focused," Williams said. "Monica was in her second final here so she obviously feels really good on this court. You have to hit five, six, seven shots more than usual. It can be frustrating. She's tricky. You have to be ready."
And ready she was - Williams burst out to a 3-0 lead right away and never really looked back the whole match, though she really did have to hit five, six, seven shots more than usual. The WTA legend ended up winning by a 62 63 scoreline.
"The score looked easy but the first set was 6-2 and like 42 minutes!" Williams said. "You have to put a lot of balls back in the court against her. It was back and forth, back and forth - I knew I just had to stay focused and keep fighting.
"Coming to the tournament this week I was just trying to play well. I didn't know if I could win this event, so to stand here as the winner is a wonderful way for me to end the year, and it really makes me look forward to next year as well."
Williams' last WTA title came at Acapulco in February 2010, and after that victory Williams was ranked No.2, just a few matches away from No.1 again - she has had a well-documented fall from the top over the last two and a half years, missing most of the second half of 2010 with a knee injury, most of the first half of 2011 with hip and abdominal injuries and, most recently, a seven-month lay-off between September 2011 and March 2012 due to illness.
But if Luxembourg is anything to go by, it could all be behind her.
"My main goal coming here was to make the Top 32 and be seeded going into the Australian Open. I hope I'm somewhere in the Top 32 now. But wherever I end up, it's just very rewarding to win here after facing a lot of challenges."
And who got more fans this week, she or her dog, Harold? "Me and Harry went for a lot of walks, and he's very popular in Luxembourg now - he has a lot of new fans and friends," Williams said. "I was really jetlagged so I didn't spend much time outside the hotel - usually I do, I don't know what happened!"
Williams' career haul of 44 WTA titles is second-most among active players, trailing only her sister Serena Williams, who has won 45 (and could make that 46 as she plays the WTA Championships in Istanbul this week).
Niculescu fell to 0-2 in WTA finals, having lost to Victoria Azarenka in the same round here last year, but after her own injury struggles - she had a stress fracture in her left hand that caused her to miss all tournaments between Wimbledon and the US Open this past summer, including the Olympics - she is looking as much on the up as Williams is for the upcoming 2013 season.