No.8 seed Alison Riske held off lucky loser Jaqueline Cristian after two hours and 24 minutes in a 2-6, 6-2, 7-5 final thriller to win her third career title at the Upper Austria Ladies Linz.
The American was previously champion at Tianjin 2014 and 's-Hertogenbosch 2019, but had lost her seven other finals, including in Portoroz two months ago to Jasmine Paolini. However, the Portoroz run had signalled a long-awaited turnaround in Riske's fortunes. Battling a left foot injury, she had only won four matches in the first eight months of the year. Her record since the US Open is now 12-5.
Cristian had been bidding to cap a particularly unusual week with a historic victory. The Romanian lost in the final round of qualifying to Lesia Tsurenko, but got into the main draw when No.6 seed Sorana Cirstea withdrew.
On the day she cracked the Top 100 for the first time, Cristian won her opener against Kamilla Rakhimova. In the quarterfinals, she scored a career-best upset of No.4 seed Veronika Kudermetova, and in the semifinals she received a walkover after No.2 Simona Halep withdrew with a left knee injury. She was bidding to become the fourth lucky loser to win a WTA title, following Kay McDaniel (Atlanta 1980), Olga Danilovic (Moscow River Cup 2018) and Coco Gauff (Linz 2019).
Cristian had never previously won a title above ITF W25 level, but delivered a performance of tremendous courage to come within two points of the title. Riske would require all her own fortitude to hold off Cristian in a nailbiting home stretch.
By the numbers: The first two sets were virtually mirror images of each other. In the first, Cristian brushed off a nervy start to take control, breaking Riske three times and tallying nine winners to eight unforced errors. By contrast, Riske would commit 13 unforced errors to only four winners.
In the second set, Riske opted for a more watertight strategy, committing to longer rallies in which Cristian was frequently lured into pulling the trigger too soon. Riske kept her error count to a meagre three while still striking nine winners; Cristian could only find two winners compared to nine winners.
The intensity was ratcheted up during an edge-of-seat decider. Both committed 14 unforced errors in it, with Riske also tallying five winners to Cristian's nine - but in truth, mere numbers fail to do the set justice.
Key moments: Riske's second-set strategy continued to pay dividends. Flat, hard strokes from the baseline kept her on the front foot, but the 31-year-old was content to extend the rallies while being sharp to take advantage of any short ball or poor shot choice from her opponent.
Riske twice went up a break, but both times Cristian displayed bravery under pressure to peg her back. An astonishing five-deuce eighth game encapsulated this. Riske held six game points to move up 5-3, but Cristian came up with some of her best aggressive tennis, particularly on the drive volley, to fend them off. In the subsequent game, she would also save four break points in similar style to move up 5-4 herself.
Those two games had the crowd on their feet and seemed like momentum-shifters. But it was Riske's turn to be resilient. Two points from defeat, she found some big serves to level at 5-5 - and then finally, the steam went out of Cristian's game. The first-time finalist threw in a double fault and a handful of errors to drop serve, and Riske reeled off 10 of the last 13 points for a memorable triumph.
Riske on the final: "It was a battle out there today," said the champion afterwards. "Honestly, I was really nervous. I felt I was able to manage my nerves at the end of the day, and I'm very proud of that, because in the past I think I would have let them eat me up and I would not have been able to perform.
"I really hoped that I was going to end the match better than I started it. My coach was pretty adamant on the sidelines about being more aggressive, to play my game. I really tried to do that. It might not have been what I wanted it to look like, but that's what I tried and what ultimately got me through.
"It's awesome to win my third title. I've been in 11 finals, they just told me that, and I only have three titles - so the odds weren't very good! But I'm happy to finally get another one."
Riske on the gradual comeback from injury: "It was a really long process," she said. "I was playing matches, but I'd get wiped off the court. Just getting the emotional aspect of competing day in, day out was really a struggle. I finally found it as the end of the year came - which is unfortunate, because I'm ready to keep going! I think the competitive aspect is something you lose, and I just had to play a lot of matches.
"Once I got to the final in Portoroz, that gave me confidence to know that hey, the game is there. It's beginning to show itself a little bit. I really think I did hit my stride here in Linz. I wouldn't say today was my best match in the week, but the fact that I was able to gut through it was a good indication that things are beginning to come together."
Dzalamidze, Rakhimova end Wang, Zheng streak to win doubles title
No.3 seeds Natela Dzalamidze and Kamilla Rakhimova ended the 10-match winning streak of Wang Xinyu and Zheng Saisai to claim the doubles title. It was a second trophy in three WTA finals for both Russians. Dzalamidze, 28, also won the Winners Open, Cluj-Napoca with Kaja Juvan in August for her maiden title; Rakhimova's first WTA crown came at the Phillip Island Trophy in February alongside Ankita Raina.
Dzalamidze and Rakhimova have partnered each other three times in 2021, compiling an 8-2 record overall after also reaching the Palermo final and Moscow semifinals.
Wang and Zheng had been on a hot streak this autumn. The Chinese pair first paired up in September, and promptly captured the Columbus 125 and Courmayeur titles before reaching a third straight final this week.