Welcome back to Clay Chronicles, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the clay seasons of the past five years. After recapping Charleston's classics, our retrospective now heads to Stuttgart, Germany to recount some of the best matches from recent editions of the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix. Next up is the three-set feast of dropshots and improvisation between Laura Siegemund and Kristina Mladenovic in the 2017 final.
HOW THEY GOT THERE: The first half of 2017 had seen Kristina Mladenovic put together the finest sustained form of her career. Until then, the former junior World No.1 had peaked in flashes after transitioning to the pros - a US Open quarterfinal run in 2015, three International runner-up showings at Strasbourg 2015, 's-Hertogenbosch 2016 and Hong Kong 2016 - but these had been short-lived bursts in a career otherwise beset by inconsistency.
In 2017, all this changed as Mladenovic began to post high-level results week-in, week-out. The Frenchwoman's maiden title had finally arrived in St. Petersburg in February, and she had been able to follow it up with another final in Acapulco and a semifinal run in Indian Wells, taking down names such as Karolina Pliskova, Simona Halep and Caroline Wozniacki in the process.
In Stuttgart, now ranked World No.19, Mladenovic continued to soar. A 6-4, 6-2 defeat of Mirjana Lucic-Baroni in the first round was followed by a superlative 6-2, 7-5 upset of two-time defending champion Angelique Kerber in the second round and a 6-3, 6-2 dismissal of Carla Suárez Navarro in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, Mladenovic was majestic in delivering a statement win. With all eyes in Stuttgart on Maria Sharapova, playing the first tournament of her return to the sport following a 15-month suspension, Mladenovic halted the former World No.1's narrative and seized bragging rights in an edgy rivalry with a 3-6, 7-5, 6-4 triumph to extend her win-loss record for the season to 22-7.
By contrast, Laura Siegemund had endured a torrid start to the year, losing seven of her first eight matches through the first quarter. Only on her beloved clay had the German belatedly come alive, kickstarting her season with a semifinal run in Charleston that had featured a brilliant 6-4, 6-7(3), 7-5 win over Venus Williams.
Moreover, Siegemund had previous in Stuttgart - virtually a hometown event for the Filderstadt native. In 2016, as a qualifier ranked at a career high of World No.71, she had stunned three consecutive Top 10 players - Simona Halep, Roberta Vinci and Agnieszka Radwanska - all in straight sets to reach her maiden final. Though Kerber had been too much for Siegemund in the first all-German WTA Tour final in 11 years, the University of Hagen graduate had served notice of how dangerous her idiosyncratic, variety-heavy game could be on the terre battue.
Twelve months later, lightning struck twice. Now ranked World No.49 - but still needing a wildcard to enter the main draw - Siegemund navigated past Zhang Shuai 6-2, 7-6(4) in the first round and then, for the second year running, took down Top 10 opposition in three straight matches. No.8 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova was dismissed 6-4, 6-3 in the second round; a 7-6(3), 5-7, 6-3 marathon saw her edge No.2 seed Karolina Pliskova in the quarterfinals; and while No.4 seed Halep was able to win three times the number of games than the previous year, she could still not muster a set off Siegemund, who progressed to the final 6-4, 7-5.
WHAT HAPPENED: It was a clash of two irresistible forces, with both players seeking to force the issue in idiosyncratic and unexpected ways. Each sought to chop up the rhythm of rallies with changes of spin and pace, and to sneak forward to put their outstanding net skills to use; equally fond of a dropshot as of a surprise injection of baseline pace, it made for an absorbing seesaw contest.
It was Siegemund who shot out of the blocks faster. Holding nothing back on return, she limited Mladenovic to just seven points on her own serve and no holds in the first set - an even more impressive statistic considering that the Frenchwoman maintained a sky-high 85% first serve percentage. But Siegemund's timing and gusto were such that she was even able to swat away the usually-booming Mladenovic first delivery for clean winners - and only one careless service game of her own prevented a whitewash as the home favorite sped to a dominant 6-1 opening act.
Match report: Siegemund seals Stuttgart title in Mladenovic epic
Mladenovic wasn't about to let this state of affairs continue, though. Recognizing that safer first serves meant little if they failed to keep Siegemund at bay, the 23-year-old upped her power and went for the lines - an adjustment that paid off in style: in the second set, she would concede only three points on serve. Meanwhile, Siegemund's intensity and accuracy would fall off just slightly - three double faults crept in, as well as a number of errant backhands on key points - enabling Mladenovic to break twice to level the match with a 6-2 set.
Both players had demonstrated what they could do when in the zone, and the stage was set for a decider in which these would be pitted against each other. It made for a thrilling, narrowly contested passage of play - with a particular highlight coming in the seventh game when Mladenovic somehow pulled off a miraculous half-volley pickup - as the first eight games went with serve.
Siegemund, finding her range on return once again, struck at what seemed like the perfect moment, breaking for 5-4 with a clean return winner - but serving for the championship proved beyond the 29-year-old, who received a point penalty for a time violation as Mladenovic broke back to 15 immediately. Mladenovic would take this momentum into the deciding tiebreak, moving up 4-1 with a backhand winner down the line - but, three points from defeat, there was still just enough time for Siegemund to essay another plot twist.
Scampering around the court and willing the ball inside the lines, the crowd favorite would reel off six of the last seven points to seal her second career title following Bastad the previous year 6-1, 2-6, 7-6(5). Appropriately enough, championship point was dramatic, flairsome and decided by the finest of margins: a lunging, sliding counterdrop from Siegemund that landed on the line for a winner, called only after umpire Mariana Alves had descended to check the mark.
WHAT THEY SAID: Talking to WTA Insider Courtney Nguyen afterwards on the Champions Corner podcast, Siegemund had yet to come down from her high. "I was so much in the zone that even when I finally won - even now - I cannot believe it," she gushed. "I really played great but I don't remember a lot of the last points, I was so focused. But it's unbelievable for me, it can't get any better than this."
Fan support, she said, had been key to carrying her through the week - "I'm just so proud and so happy that I can give the people something back because I have so many supporters here, and the atmosphere the fans create is unbelievable" - but Siegemund also credited a more aggressive mindset coming to fruition.
Though she acknowledged that her primary game style was to "find the weak spots [of an opponent] and really dig in there", she had also found success by learning to take points on. "The match against Pliskova really showed me that I can play very aggressive tennis," she said. "I have to remember this and the way I played there, it can be a big step in my game plan." Siegemund made a point of approaching the final in the same way: "You kind of have to prove it again and again, that's how I felt today - I felt I really had to go out of my way again to find that aggressive gear, and this will be continuing through the next tournaments. It's an ongoing process as a player - this is something I've been working on for a long time and I know now it's working even against top players."
WHAT IT MEANT: The title catapulted Siegemund back into the Top 30 - but unfortunately, she would get little opportunity to build on it. Second-round showings followed in Madrid and Rome, with quality wins over Johanna Konta and Naomi Osaka counterbalanced by losses to perennial nemesis CoCo Vandeweghe and Simona Halep, as the Romanian finally solved Siegemund at the third attempt.
Returning to home soil in Nurnberg, disaster struck in the second round. Leading Barbora Krejcikova 6-4, 5-5, Siegemund's right knee gave way, and she would have to be stretchered off court in agony. The injury turned out to be a ruptured cruciate ligament, and it would sideline her for nine months. When Siegemund returned, it would be at ITF W25 level in Santa Margherita di Pula the following March; her title defence would be ended in the second round by Vandeweghe once more, and it would be July 2019 before she made another WTA semifinal appearance, in Bucharest.
In May 2018, Siegemund's injury-affected ranking sunk to a low of World No.358, but she would claw her way back up to the Top 100 in April 2019 - and at the time of the current pause in play sits at a post-injury high of World No.65.
Mladenovic's star continued to rise in 2017, meanwhile. Two weeks later, she would reach her fourth final of the season and biggest yet in Madrid, where she would only be halted by Halep in another excellent final. A fortnight after that, Mladenovic put together a dramatic run to her maiden Roland Garros quarterfinal, keeping the home crowd on the edge of their seats as she edged out overtime thrillers against Jennifer Brady and Shelby Rogers before ousting defending champion Garbiñe Muguruza in the fourth round before falling to Timea Bacsinszky.
However, Mladenovic's run of consistency would come crashing to an end following the grass swing. Beginning with a second-round loss in Washington to a 17-year-old Bianca Andreescu, a career-best first-half of 2017 abruptly skidded into a 15-match losing streak that lasted into the following year.
Though Mladenovic's ranking would be borne upwards into the Top 10 off the back of her first-half results, it would sink to World No.62 by the following July. Ultimately, her results would stabilize in 2018, and she has posted a number of career highlights since then including three Grand Slam doubles crowns and spearheading France's victory over Australia in last year's Fed Cup final. However, the level of consistency Mladenovic enjoyed during this period has continued to elude her, and she has yet to return to the Top 30 in singles.