Vitalia Diatchenko's run to her third career WTA 125 title at the inaugural Open P2i Angers Arena Loire was an eventful one, sealed with a 6-0, 6-4 defeat of No.2 seed Zhang Shuai in the final.
The Russian World No.165 fell to Daniela Vismane 6-2, 7-6(5) in the final qualifying round, but entered the main draw as a lucky loser following the withdrawal of No.1 seed Anhelina Kalinina. Diatchenko would gain revenge over Vismane in the second round, coming from a set and 0-4 down and saving two match points to defeat the Latvian 2-6, 7-6(6), 7-6(0) - the longest match of the tournament at two hours and 44 minutes.
After defeating wildcard Mallaurie Noel 6-1, 7-5 in the quarterfinals and qualifier Natalia Vikhlyantseva 7-5, 6-2 in the semifinals, Diatchenko capped her week with a near-flawless performance against Zhang. It was the 31-year-old's best win by ranking since upsetting Maria Sharapova in the first round of Wimbledon 2018, and sealed her third WTA 125 trophy following the 2014 and 2019 Taipei titles.
"It feels so good - this year was very difficult for me," Diatchenko said. "My coach was telling me before the match, there's no way you need to win it because this year was terrible for you."
Former World No.71 Diatchenko's career has been littered with injuries, and she has been on the comeback trail yet again in 2021. She underwent knee surgeries in December 2020 and February this year, sidelining her for seven months until returning in May.
"No, everybody would be in shock!" said Diatchenko, declining to give the exact number of surgeries she has had in her career. "But I'm enjoying every match I'm playing, especially when I'm playing on a good level. My injuries and surgeries haven't let me play as I'm supposed to play. It's really nice to feel I can play good again."
Through all her struggles, Diatchenko's family support has been key to keep her going.
"The best motivation is my mum, and I dedicate this title to her," she said. "She keeps pushing me through every single time in my life. I really think she'll be proud today."
Scraping past Vismane had been the key to turning Diatchenko's form around in Angers.
"I was playing incredibly bad, so all I could do was fight," she recalled. "When you play that bad, you can still fight. And in the final I improved my game, so it was the way to playing well again."
Against Zhang, Diatchenko roared out of the blocks with spectacular tennis. Maintaining a 71% first serve percentage, Diatchenko conceded just two points behind her delivery in an opening set that flashed past in 22 minutes. Her game thrived in the quick indoor conditions: taking the ball early with her double-fisted groundstrokes on both sides, she rattled off a series of scorching winners, including one to seal all three breaks of Zhang's serve.
After a brief dip at the start of the second set, Diatchenko regained her form as she took four games in a row from 0-2 to 4-2. Zhang used all her experience to cling on to the scoreboard, and it nearly paid off. Stepping up to the line to serve for the title, Diatchenko needed to survive a major wobble as her form of the previous hour deserted her.
🏆C’EST FAIT !!!🏆— Open P2i Angers Arena Loire (@LoireOpen) December 12, 2021
🇷🇺Vitalia DIATCHENKO remporte la première édition de l’Open P2i Angers Arena Loire ! 😍🔥
Victoire 6-0, 6-4 face à Shuai ZHANG, tête de série numéro 2 ! ✅
She served six double faults, including a serve that bounced before the net and another that nearly cleared the baseline. Two of those came up championship point. However, Diatchenko's groundstrokes held up and enabled her to stave off four break-back points.
On the game's seventh deuce, Zhang left a ball that was called in, and Diatchenko took advantage. Though a repeatedly aborted ball toss garnered her a time violation warning on her fifth championship point, she would eventually seal the title with a forehand crosscourt winner.
The result was revenge for Diatchenko's 6-2, 7-5 first-round loss to Zhang in Birmingham this June, and levelled their head-to-head at two wins apiece. The last time Diatchenko defeated Zhang was over a decade ago, in 2010 Estoril qualifying on clay.
Zhang, Yuan, Vikhlyantseva find form in Angers
Opting to compete through December is paying off for Zhang, who did not drop a set en route to her sixth career WTA 125 final. The 32-year-old has been rebuilding her form after losing nine of her first 10 matches of 2021. A run to the Nottingham final in June turned Zhang's season around, and in September she captured the US Open doubles title alongside Samantha Stosur.
In Angers, Zhang's week was highlighted by a 6-3, 6-2 defeat of No.8 seed Kristina Mladenovic in the quarterfinals, after which she eased past Chinese compatriot Yuan Yue 6-4, 6-0 in the last four. It was nonetheless a breakthrough tournament for No.293-ranked qualifier Yuan, whose run to her first WTA 125 semifinal took her winning streak to 10 after she captured the Selva Gardena ITF W25 title last week.
Yuan, 23, upset Eugenie Bouchard in Australian Open qualifying to start the year, but had struggled for wins until hitting the European indoor ITF circuit over the past two months. This week, she was able to show off her powerful forehand and clean striking as she upset No.3 seed Greet Minnen 6-3, 6-3 in the second round for her second career Top 100 win. Yuan backed that up by defeating former World No.97 Jana Fett 7-5, 3-6, 6-0 in the quarterfinals.
Natalia Vikhlyantseva, 24, was another player who came through qualifying to reach the semifinals for a season-best result. The former World No.54 had fallen to World No.244 after compiling an 8-18 record in 2021 prior to Angers, but dismissed Ana Bogdan 6-2, 6-2 in the first round and No.6 seed Vera Zvonareva 6-3, 6-4 in the second round. When No.4 seed Clara Burel withdrew from their quarterfinal due to an abdominal injury, Vikhlyantseva moved into her biggest semifinal since Moscow 2017.
Mihalikova, Minnen capture doubles title over Niculescu, Zvonareva
The unseeded first-time partnership of Tereza Mihalikova and Greet Minnen were crowned doubles champions after upsetting No.1 seeds Monica Niculescu and Vera Zvonareva 4-6, 6-1, [10-8] in the final. The Slovak-Belgian duo triumphed in super-tiebreaks in each of their matches this week, having also defeated No.2 seeds Anna Blinkova and Nina Stojanovic 2-6, 7-5, [10-8] in the quarterfinals and Oksana Kalashnikova and Alexandra Panova 6-4, 4-6, [10-4] in the semifinals.
Mihalikova and Minnen had both already captured WTA 250 doubles titles this season - Mihalikova in Portoroz with Anna Kalinskaya, and Minnen in Luxembourg with Alison Van Uytvanck - but this week marks their first trophy at WTA 125 level.