Welcome to Memory Lawn, where wtatennis.com will take a look back at some of the most memorable matches from the grass seasons of the past five years. Our retrospective starts in Birmingham to recount some of the best matches from the recent editions of the Nature Valley Classic. Starting with 2015, we revisit the topsy-turvy quarterfinal clash between future Wimbledon champion Simona Halep and French star Kristina Mladenovic.
HOW THEY GOT HERE: The 2015 season saw tradition expand or recede, depending on how you choose to look at things. While the calendar gained an extra week of grass court tennis, it came at the expense of the typical two-week break between Roland Garros and Wimbledon, a nod to the growing rigors required of players transitioning from the terre battue to SW19.
Simona Halep opted to mind the growing gap and play the tournament in Birmingham for the first time in her career, having typically warmed up for Wimbledon in 's-Hertogenbosch. Halep was surely aiming to restart her spring momentum that had come to a shocking halt in Paris. The Romanian was on a high at the end of the Sunshine Swing, winning both the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships and BNP Paribas Open - the latter came as her first Premier Mandatory title - and pushing eventual Miami Open champion Serena Williams to three grueling sets the following fortnight.
Semifinal finishes at the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix and Internazionali BNL d'Italia seemingly set her up in good stead for Roland Garros, where she'd finished runner-up a year before, but a second round defeat to an on-fire Mirjana Lucic-Baroni - her second major loss to the Croatian veteran out of the last three - brought her clay court season to a disappointing conclusion. Top seed in Birmingham, she made quick work of her opening opponents, easing past hometown favorite Naomi Broady and Klara Koukalova to reach her eighth quarterfinal of the season, and while grass wasn't her most comfortable service, she could boast a growing resume that included a title in 's-Hertogenbosch and a run to the Wimbledon semis in 2014.
Awaiting her in the last eight was Kristina Mladenovic, a talented French youngster who had beaten the Romanian in their only prior meeting at the 2014 Paris Indoors. A fellow former French Open junior champion, Mladenovic first rose into the Top 40 in 2013, the year she scored her first Top 3 win over Petra Kvitova at that same indoor event, and was back on the upswing after upsetting then World No.6 Eugenie Bouchard en route to the third round of her home major tournament. Her transition to grass was smoother than years past after reaching the quarterfinals in 's-Hertogenbosch - where she narrowly lost to good friend Belinda Bencic - though the former junior Wimbledon finalist clarified that these results were a few seasons in the making.
"I always enjoyed playing on grass," she said that week. "I remember playing really well in 's-Hertogenbosch, but I lost a very close match in three sets to CoCo Vandeweghe, who won the tournament. So I was like, 'Okay this is not that bad.' Then I arrived in Wimbledon and lost first round to Zarina Diyas, who afterwards a really great run into the second week, so it was like, 'Maybe unlucky a little bit. I will try next year again.'"
Her run in Birmingham was even more impressive, featuring wins over Alison Riske, another upset over Bouchard, and a straight-set win over Barbora Strycova, future Wimbledon semifinalist.
WHAT HAPPENED: Where Mladenovic edged past Halep in two sets on hardcourts, the Romanian ostensibly had the advantage to start their grass court clash, surging through the opening set without facing a break point on serve.
The second set found Halep under pressure from Mladenovic's all-court game, one that had come into sharp focus after an unimpressive opener. Moving into a 5-0 lead, she survived a dramatic final game that required four set points to level the match.
What ensued in the decider was both women at their best. Though the Frenchwoman drew first blood in the eighth game, Halep gamely broke back as Mladenovic attempted to serve out the match, ultimately forcing a tie-break.
A similarly tense Sudden Death turned on the final three points, with Mladenovic ramping up her aggression and securing the 2-6, 6-0, 7-6(4) victory with one last forehand up the line.
WHAT THEY SAID: For Mladenovic, her first Top 5 win outside the Paris Indoors was one to celebrate.
"I'm just very happy right now with how I managed to win the match," she said in post-match press. "There were lot of up and downs, but this is a tennis match. It's also the magical thing about the grass court game.
"I'm pleased with the way I played the second set, because I'm not sure she's had a lot of 0-6 sets. But then I had to refocus and continue, because she's obviously a very tough competitor, and for sure she wouldn't give me this game easy.
"I was expecting a very tough third set, and at the end, I hope for the crowd it was a very nice third set."
The crowd and attending journalists were indeed spellbound by Mladenovic's unique style and relentless variety, focusing on one shot in particular.
"Did I really play that many drop shots?" she asked a reporter, "Because everybody is talking to me about my drop shots.
"It's true that maybe it's unusual for people to see them, but that's something about my game. It's not that easy in women's tennis because everybody is playing a very solid, deep, fast game, but as you probably know, I'm also great doubles player.
"I've been working on things, trying to bring something new to surprise players. I love volleys, drop shots, but it's not that easy, so I'm really trying to use it on the right moments so I can win the point. I'm happy that people like it, that it's different. It works out for me."
For Halep, it was a disappointing defeat, one that likely compounded the losses suffered only a few weeks earlier in Paris.
"On clay I had pressure and I couldn't handle it," she admitted. "I played bad and I couldn't feel like relaxed on court. That was a bad thing."
WHAT IT MEANT: Pressure followed Halep, who announced a split with former coach Victor Ionita after Birmingham, to the All England Club, where she took another three-set loss, this time to an inspired Jana Cepelova.
She soon regrouped for the US summer hardcourt swing, with coach Darren Cahill now at the helm. She kicked off the US Open Series with a first Rogers Cup final and continued that momentum at the Western & Southern Open, avenging the loss to Mladenovic en route to the championship match, where she fell to World No.1 Serena Williams.
Halep would conquer Williams and grass courts in one fell swoop in 2019, shocking the 23-time Grand Slam champion at Wimbledon last summer for her second major title.
As for Mladenovic, the Frenchwoman continued surging through the summer, falling just short of the second week at Wimbledon and making her first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal at the US Open, upsetting Ekaterina Makrova in a thrilling Arthur Ashe Stadium night match that featured some more audacious shotmaking, including an especially memorable 'tweener.