Qualifier Elena-Gabriela Ruse belied her inexperience at WTA level to deliver a superb performance in the Hamburg European Open final, defeating former World No.9 Andrea Petkovic 7-6(6), 6-4 to lift her maiden WTA trophy.
World No.198 Ruse saved two set points in the first set and overturned a 0-3 double-break deficit in the second to become the lowest-ranked WTA titlist since World No.299 Margarita Gasparyan won Tashkent 2018. The Romanian is the third qualifier to win a WTA tournament this season, following Clara Tauson in Lyon and Liudmila Samsonova in Berlin, and the 11th first-time titlist.
"I'm so emotional right now," said Ruse afterwards. "I felt really good today on the court. I would like to thank my coach very much - I'm such a crazy player, it's not easy to work with me. It was a pleasure to play [Andrea] in the final. Especially because I saw so many matches of her on TV when I was little."
Ruse, 23, accomplished her title run this week despite having only once progressed to the quarterfinals of a WTA tournament, at Nottingham 2019. She came into this week having not contested a WTA main draw since Prague last year, and with an 11-9 win-loss record in 2021. Her biggest previous title was the 2017 Bad Saulgau ITF W25, and her career-high ranking was World No.159, set last December. Ruse is now guaranteed to hit a new peak, and break the Top 150 for the first time.
First-time WTA champions in 2021
Clara Tauson (DEN), Lyon
Sara Sorribes Tormo (ESP), Guadalajara
Leylah Fernandez (CAN), Monterrey
Veronika Kudermetova (RUS), Charleston 500
Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (COL), Bogota
Astra Sharma (AUS), Charleston 250
Paula Badosa (ESP), Belgrade
Barbora Krejcikova (CZE), Strasbourg
Liudmila Samsonova (RUS), Berlin
Ons Jabeur (TUN), Birmingham
Elena-Gabriela Ruse (ROU), Hamburg
However, Ruse has been bubbling under on fans' radar for a while now. She had a big-stage moment on her Grand Slam debut at Wimbledon 2018, when she held six match points over Agnieszka Radwanska on No.1 Court. The ball-striking talent that she demonstrated in that match has come to fruition this week, in which Ruse also upset No.6 seed Jil Teichmann, No.4 seed Danielle Collins and No.1 seed Dayana Yastremska.
After an early exchange of breaks, a tightly contested first set would be decided by the slimmest of margins as neither player conceded ground on serve. Ruse was the more creative and aggressive player in rallies, scoring 34 winners to Petkovic's 13 overall, but Petkovic repeatedly came up with big first serves to keep her side of the scoreboard ticking along.
The German World No.130 was in her first WTA final since winning Antwerp 2015 and seeking her seventh career title, and first on home soil having previously lost the 2013 Nurnberg final to Simona Halep. She held two set points - once at 6-5, and then again in the tiebreak. However, her forehand faltered on both occasions.
Ruse would ultimately seal the set in controversial fashion. Up set point, she sent a forehand fizzing down the line, which was initially called out. Petkovic had barely managed to lay a racquet on it, and umpire Thomas Sweeney overruled the call and awarded the point and first set to Ruse - much to the home player's displeasure.
To Petkovic's credit, she rebounded in stellar fashion, coming up with some of her best returns of the day to move up a 3-0 double break in the second set. But one of the hallmarks of Ruse's victory was her boldness under scoreboard pressure.
Ruse's form in the home stretch was simply dazzling: two breathtaking crosscourt forehands gained her the first break back as she reeled off four games in a row, and six of the last seven.
Her composure was also impressive. At 4-3, Ruse continued to strike winner after winner to threaten the Petkovic serve, and held a total of five break points. But the 33-year-old somehow escaped that game after Ruse ballooned a putaway wide on her fifth break point.
Ruse was undeterred. A pair of backhand winners down the line saw her fend off a break point against her in the next game. Then, with Petkovic serving at 40-0 to level the set at 5-5, Ruse raised her level again to rattle off five straight points for the title, finishing appropriately with yet another backhand winner.
An all-unseeded doubles final saw the Italian-Swiss duo of Jasmine Paolini and Jil Teichmann capture their first title together with a 6-0, 6-4 defeat of Astra Sharma and Rosalie Van Der Hoek in exactly one hour.
It was the first WTA doubles title for either player. Teichmann, a singles champion in Prague and Palermo in 2019, had previously lost the 2020 Lexington final, in which she partnered Marie Bouzkova, to Hayley Carter and Luisa Stefani. Teichmann had also been a titlist at 125 level alongside Misaki Doi at Newport Beach 2018.