TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - The 21st and final edition of the Tashkent Open ended in style as No.3 seed Alison Van Uytvanck triumphed in a riveting final to claim her second title of the season 6-2, 4-6, 6-4 over No.8 seed Sorana Cirstea in two hours and 24 minutes.
The Belgian, who also won a second consecutive Budapest title in February, maintains her immaculate record in WTA finals, having now won all four she has contested in three sets. Today, in order to claim her first ever championship outdoors, Van Uytvanck also needed to overcome an opponent from whom she had yet to win a set in two prior meetings - and who had form in the Uzbek capital, Cirstea having won her only career title here in 2008.
"It was an unbelievable match - I'm still shaking," Van Uytvanck told Sunder Iyer of Tashkent Tennis afterwards. "Sorana started playing well in the second set - I had to serve well as she was crushing my second serves. This will give me a lot of confidence. I'm happy to get through with a win - I have only two weeks left in the season, so I'm happy to bag this title."
Van Uytvanck has been rampant this week en route to the title match, though, dropping just 18 games and no sets in her four previous matches, and brought this form to bear in a dominant opening set. Taking the ball early and deploying her extensive variety, the 25-year-old dictated with flashy flat forehand winners, elegant volleys and well-disguised dropshots that died on contact with the court.
Breaking in the opening game and then again in the seventh, a 76% first serve percentage helped ensure that Van Uytvanck would not have to face a break point herself in an opening act in which she conjured up 11 winners to just four unforced errors.
However, Cirstea - competing in her first final since Toronto 2013 - demonstrating impressive battling qualities to turn around two mini marathon games in the opening stages of the second set. The Romanian would survive a 0-40 hole to avoid falling behind a set and a break - and then, powering through her groundstrokes as the Van Uytvanck forehand began to misfire, came through five deuces before capturing her first break point of the match with a sharp volley in the very next game.
The remainder of the set found Van Uytvanck struggling to rediscover her initial form, with her first serve percentage plummeting to 45% and her unforced errors mounting to 18. As Cirstea attempted to close it out, there were flashes of a Van Uytvanck revival as a series of down-the-line winners saw her break the Nurnberg semifinalist back - but it was a false dawn, as another flurry of mistakes saw her immediately in trouble serving to stay in the set. An ill-advised serve-and-volley attempt down set point went awry, and Van Uytvanck had conceded her first set of the week.
The 2015 Roland Garros quarterfinalist now found herself in a match poised on the knife edge, and needed to summon all her battling qualities to come out on top. As in the second set, two epic tussles at the start of the decider would prove crucial - and this time, it was Van Uytvanck who would prove more clutch.
In an 11-minute second game, Cirstea would make her way to break point six times - and somehow, Van Uytvanck would come up with some of her finest serves and biggest forehands to fend off each one before holding after 10 deuces. Now approaching full flow, Van Uytvanck would show off her greater range to supreme effect in the next game, drawing gasps with a leaping backhand winner en route to breaking Cirstea after another four deuces.
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To Cirstea's credit, the loss of those two games was far from the end of the match's competition; the 29-year-old valiantly clung on, striking 29 winners to stay within touching distance. She was very nearly rewarded in a dramatic final game as Van Uytvanck attempted to serve out the title: throwing everything at the match in a bid to extend it, Cirstea would thwart four championship points, two in spectacular style with a backhand winner driven into the corner and a swashbuckling drive volley.
But Van Uytvanck, who tallied 34 winners of her own, would not be denied. Chasing down Cirstea's biggest strikes, she refused to concede her serve, and a bold net approach on her fifth championship point finally elicited a mistake from her opponent. Having sealed her fourth WTA trophy, a delighted Van Uytvanck celebrated with a kiss for girlfriend and doubles partner Greet Minnen.