Liudmila Samsonova's run to her maiden title at the bett1open was one for the ages. The 22-year-old Russian, who has spent most of her life in Italy, was still chasing her Top 100 debut when qualifying began in Berlin. She proceeded to reel off seven wins to advance to her first WTA final, where she rallied from a nervous start to defeat No.12 Belinda Bencic, 1-6, 6-1, 6-3 to win the inaugural event.
With the win, Samsonova became the first qualifier and lowest-ranked player to win a WTA 500 event since Tsvetana Pironkova won Sydney in 2014.
Samsonova's strong serve and powerful baseline game paved her way past a flurry of the tour's best players of the season. She came into the tournament with just three Top 50 wins in her career and proceeded to add five to her tally. In addition to a win over Ana Konjuh in the final round of qualifying, Samsonova defeated No.41 Marketa Vondrousova, Charleston champion No.32 Veronika Kudermetova, No.28 Madison Keys, No.16 Victoria Azarenka, and No.12 Bencic. In total, Samsonova's average rank of opponent in the main draw was an astounding 25.8. She averaged 9 aces per match, culminating in a 14-ace performance in the final.
Samsonova spoke to WTA Insider after her win - and celebratory dunk - to piece together the keys to her improvement over the last three seasons and why it all led to a dream week that left her stunned.
WTA Insider: Congratulations on winning your first title. What are you proudest of this week?
Samsonova: For the fight, for sure. How I fought every game, every match, every day. That's it.
WTA Insider: Of your seven matches this week, which included wins over Ana Konjuh in qualifying, and then Marketa Vondrousova, Veronika Kudermetova, Madison Keys, Victoria Azarenka, and Belinda Bencic, which match meant the most to you?
Samsonova: Maybe the semifinal against Azarenka. That gave me a lot. And the first round of the main draw against Vondrousova.
WTA Insider: How did you come to pick up a tennis racquet?
Samsonova: It was my mom. My dad is a sportsman. He was playing table tennis. But the place where I was living it was very hard to try some sports. It's a very small place in Italy. So my mom one day on the internet searched for tennis schools and she found a club. That's how I started to play. I was six years old.
WTA Insider: What did you like about tennis?
Samsonova: Competition, for sure, and the adrenaline that you feel. The emotions.
WTA Insider: Did you play any other sports?
Samsonova: I was doing a little bit of figure skating and ballet. When I was 10 years old, my dad said OK, now you have to choose: are you going to do ballet or tennis?
I chose tennis. At that time, when I was 10, I saw I could be famous all over the world if I play tennis (laughs). So that's why I chose tennis, I think.
WTA Insider: Throughout the week, you've been doing a lot of your press conferences in Italian. I understand that you grew up in Italy since you were one?
Samsonova: I grew up in Italy since I was one years old. My parents are Russian. I played for Italy from when I was 16 to 18 years old.
When I started to play for Russia, a lot of pressure came off. It was a natural thing. I don't know how to explain it. It was like nobody cares about me so I can play for myself.
WTA Insider: Italy has such a passion for tennis. Is that why you felt so much pressure?
Samsonova: Yes, for sure. A lot of attention. I was not ready for this.
WTA Insider: And you don't feel like that playing for Russia?
Samsonova: I'm the last one [in the rankings] (laughs). They don't care about me.
WTA Insider: How would you describe your junior career?
Samsonova: I didn't play too good in juniors. I could do more, I am sure of this. I could play better. I had some moments in my life during that period that were tough for me. I was young and I didn't have the [maturity I have now]. Everything was a little bit confused.
For me, the professional tour was better. I liked more the transition.
I didn't feel pressure, I didn't feel anything. I was 19 years old, I wasn't Top 10 or Top 20 in juniors. I could just grow up and improve my game. That helped me a lot for sure.
WTA Insider: You said in your press conference that you learned after the match that you would be receiving a wildcard into the main draw of Wimbledon.
Samsonova: I found out five minutes ago. It's too much. A dream for me.
WTA Insider: Why do you think everything came together for you this week? Before Berlin, you had three Top 50 wins. This week you tallied five.
Samsonova: My game here was going too good. My serve, my first shots were easier for me. I was so confident because I saw they worked. I thought ok, if these kind of players can't beat me, I can do good. But for sure, the surface helps me a lot.
WTA Insider: Are you naturally comfortable on the grass?
Samsonova: Three years ago, when I was playing on grass and I didn't have this serve and I didn't have this power and aggressive game, I was not feeling this way. So I think it's the work that paid off.
WTA Insider: What has been the key to your improvement over the last three seasons?
Samsonova: For sure that I start to know who I am, what type of player I am. Because in the past I didn't know what I had to do. Sometimes I win playing one way, sometimes I win another way. So for sure it's a lot of mental work. This is the most important thing.
WTA Insider: So what type of player are you?
Samsonova: I am a very aggressive player.
WTA Insider: Generally speaking, Italian women's tennis has been about physicality, variety, lots of touch and feel. Russian tennis, generally, is more big-hitting, "boom boom" tennis...
Samsonova: Boom boom! I am boom boom (laughs)!
WTA Insider: Did you feel like maybe under the Italian system, coaches tried to get you to play a way that wasn't natural to you?
Samsonova: Yes. Not too much, but they tried to change me. They tried to do something different.
But since December when I changed my team, I really understand what I have to do on the court. They're pushing me to play an aggressive game, to come to the net. And I said, ah, I like this. I feel it. That's what I am.
WTA Insider: You'll be in the Top 100 on Monday and you now have a WTA title under your belt. How does this impact you going forward?
Samsonova: Something is going to change for sure. The goals are going to change, the tournaments are going to change. I have to reset and rethink things.
WTA Insider: Getting away from tennis, how would you describe your personality?
Samsonova: I'm very curious. I love to improve. I like to ask questions, learn new things, and try new things.
WTA Insider: What's the most used app on your phone?
Samsonova: Instagram. I'm like a stalker (laughs). I like to see other people. I don't post much.
WTA Insider: Would you rather read a book or watch a movie?
Samsonova: Movie. I don't know if I have a favorite movie. I've been watching more series lately. I'm watching Orphan Black.
WTA Insider: Do you have a favorite musician?
Samsonova: I love Eminem.
WTA Insider: What's your favorite food?
Samsonova: I love sushi.
WTA Insider: Since you grew up in Italy, I have to ask: What's your favorite Italian dish?
Samsonova: Pasta. Maybe amatriciana.
WTA Insider: How do you plan to celebrate your incredible week?
Samsonova: I think I'm going to celebrate tomorrow with my team because I'm going to London and I'll see them there. Today I'm going to eat a really big dessert for sure.
Nobody can say anything (laughs).