No.2 seed Zhu Lin captured the biggest title of her career at the Hana Bank Korea Open after dismissing No.1 seed Kristina Mladenovic 6-0, 6-4 in a one-hour, 18-minute final. The tournament, a WTA 250 fixture since 2004, returned at WTA 125 level this year to become the first WTA event in East Asia since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Zhu had not competed since falling to Elise Mertens in the second round of Wimbledon, and her season record prior to that had been just 9-14. However, the Chinese World No.142 made a stellar return to action in Seoul, racing through each of her matches without dropping a set. Zhu, 27, had never before made a final at this level; her previous best singles title came at the 2019 Shenzhen ITF W100 event, and she had made two WTA semifinals at Kuala Lumpur 2016 and Nanchang 2018.
In the final, Zhu made a dream start, dropping just two points on serve in the first set. The run of play was not as lopsided as the scoreline would suggest, but an inconsistent Mladenovic was unable to take a total of seven game points to get on the board. Zhu was sharp in making her pay for that statistic, converting three of her four break points and sealing the bagel set with a superb forehand winner crosscourt.
Mladenovic's efficiency improved in the second set, and the Frenchwoman twice went up a break at 1-0 and 4-2. But Zhu's all-round solidity was too much for Mladenovic's oscillating form. Three unforced errors from the former World No.10 opened the door for a break back, and a fizzing return winner from Zhu levelled the score at 4-4. The final game told a similar tale. Zhu finished one of the best rallies of the match with a fine backhand winner, but Mladenovic would also commit three tame forehand errors, including one into the net on championship point.
"Today's strategy was to remain as calm as possible and to be aggressive," said Zhu afterwards. "Today's first set was relatively easy because the opponent made a lot of mistakes. But [the second set] was different in that she used a lot of slices.
"When I was losing 2-4, it was because I made a lot of mistakes. When I thought about the reason, I was like, 'I'm trying to get all the points as winners now.' So I changed my strategy to be a little bit more patient and send the ball a little deeper so the opponent doesn't move me around, and that worked. When it was 4-4, I was freed from that pressure, and I screamed out loud."
The title match was in line with both players' progress during the week. Zhu had swept past Peangtarn Plipuech 6-1, 6-1, No.7 seed Isabella Shinikova 6-3, 6-0 and Anastasia Kulikova 6-1, 7-6(6). By contrast, Mladenovic had needed three sets in each of her matches, battling past Han Na-Lae 6-4, 5-7, 6-0 in the second round and No.8 seed Yuki Naito 5-7, 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals. In the semifinals, she trailed World No.356 Ekaterina Kazionova by a set and a break before surviving 3-6, 7-5, 7-6(4).
Mladenovic's record in WTA and WTA 125 finals is now 2-9, with her victories coming at 2017 St. Petersburg and the 2012 Taipei 125.
Kulikova, Kazionova enjoy breakthrough runs
Two unseeded players enjoyed career-best semifinal runs on their debuts at WTA 125 level. Finnish World No.274 Kulikova upset No.4 seed Valentini Grammatikopoulou 6-1, 6-2 in the second round and No.5 seed Arianne Hartono 6-2, 6-4 in the quarterfinals before giving eventual champion Zhu her toughest competition of the week.
Kulikova, 21, has reached five ITF finals this year and improved her ranking by over 250 spots since ending 2020 at No.531. Her performance marked the biggest semifinal showing by a player from Finland since former World No.59 Nanne Dahlman reached the last four of Waregem 1992.
Kazionova, who ended 2020 at No.423, has also made progress this season, reaching her first ITF W25 final in Karaganda in October. The 22-year-old Russian upset No.3 seed Reka Luca Jani 7-5, 6-2 in the second round and edged teenage prodigy Linda Fruhvirtova 6-3, 5-7, 7-6(4) in the quarterfinals. In her first ever match against a Top 100 player, Kazionova came within two points of a career-best win when she led Mladenovic 5-4, 30-0 in the third set, before the top seed's experience told.
Fruhvirtova sisters gain experience
Czech sisters Linda and Brenda Fruhvirtova have taken the junior circuit by storm in recent months, contesting three consecutive finals between them in the past two months, and continued to show signs of promise this week.
Junior World No.2 Linda, 16, won two of the all-Fruhvirtova finals and compiled a 40-7 record this season in juniors. At pro level, she also defeated Alizé Cornet and Emma Navarro to reach her first WTA quarterfinal at the Charleston 250 in April, and improved her year-end ranking from No.793 to No.296 this season. She notched up another last-eight showing in Seoul, defeating Fernanda Contreras Gomez 6-3, 6-1 in the first round and No.6 seed Jang Su Jeong 7-5, 6-3 in the second round.
Junior World No.4 Brenda, 14, has won 40 of her past 45 junior matches since August. On her pro debut, the wildcard needed only 50 minutes to dispatch Moon Jeong in the first round before falling 6-4, 6-2 to Naito. As a result, she will become the second 2007-born player to gain a WTA ranking next week, following Brazilian World No.1196 Helena Bueno.
Choi, Han capture doubles title at home
There was home-soil joy in the doubles event, won by former champions Choi Ji-Hee and Han Na-Lae 6-4, 6-4 over No.2 seeds Valentini Grammatikopoulou and Reka Luca Jani in the final.
Choi and Han had previously been the winners at Seoul 2018, taking their sole WTA 250 title to date over Hsieh Su-Wei and Hsieh Yu-Chieh. They also captured four ITF titles together in 2019, including the Tokyo ITF W100 event. This week, the Korean duo upset No.1 seeds Arianne Hartono and Olivia Tjandramulia 6-2, 6-4 in the first round and swept to the trophy without dropping a set.