TASHKENT, Uzbekistan - Irina-Camelia Begu continued her late-summer push back up the rankings with her first WTA title Saturday, putting a stop to the surprise run of 16-year-old Donna Vekic to win the Tashkent Open.
Last year was a breakthrough year for Begu, reaching her first two WTA finals at Marbella and Budapest and making it all the way to No.38 in the world - and at the end of the year her promising results were rewarded with one of the highest of accolades, the Newcomer Of The Year Award at the WTA Player Awards.
The second time around is often harder, and this year Begu struggled to defend many of those points - she made two WTA semifinals but no finals, and going into the US Open a few weeks ago she was down at No.96 in the world. But she snapped out of it with a big win in the first round there, defeating Caroline Wozniacki for her first Top 10 win, and that form travelled to Tashkent with her.
Though she did dodge defeat once - she was down 5-2 down in the third against No.8 seed Galina Voskoboeva in the quarterfinals - Begu looked sharp all week in Tashkent, not dropping a set in any of her other matches, including against Vekic in the final, in which she held nine of 10 service games (and led 40-15 in the only one she lost) en route to a comfortable 64 64 victory.
"My service is what got me through - Donna played very well and I was happy to break her in both sets," Begu said of the final. "I was a little worried when she came back from 4-2 to level the score 4-4 in the second set, but I managed to break her back immediately to take a 5-4 lead, and then I served it out.
"It feels great to win a title. I'll take back sweet memories from the Tashkent Open," the Romanian added. "I'm glad I made the last minute decision to play here, and I will surely come back to defend my title next year."
The tournament always gives its champion a Chapan, a traditional Central Asian coat, and it had special meaning for Begu. "I saw Sorana Cirstea wear this when she won the title here in 2008, but now I have one of my own!"
Vekic turned heads around the world with her run in Tashkent, coming out of the qualifying into her first WTA main draw and becoming the youngest player in six years to reach a WTA final - youngest since Tamira Paszek won the former WTA stop in Portoroz in September 2006, amazingly as a 15-year-old.
"I was ready for this final, but Irina played very well and deserved to win today," Vekic said. "I had my chances in the second set when I broke her to get back to 4-4, but I hurried a little bit on my serve and she broke me right back.
"I'm happy I had a good week, but a little disappointed of not being able to win the title after coming close. But I will come back. And the event has brought me a lot of experience and will surely help me in the WTA events I play now."
And on her 'youngest since' achievement? "New generations of players will keep coming all the time," the Croatian rising star declared. "Younger players will keep coming onto the scene frequently in the coming years."
Youth was still served in the doubles event though, as Paula Kania and Polina Pekhova won the doubles title, when Anna Chakvetadze and Vesna Dolonc had to retire after losing the first set 6-2 due to a Chakvetadze back injury.
Kania, a 19-year-old from Poland, and Pekhova, a 20-year-old from Belarus, both won their first WTA titles of any kind. "We are thrilled and speechless," they said. "We were the last pair to get in and to win the tournament is amazing. We have always seen the winners here wearing the Uzbek Chapans, and we never imaged we would ever wear them, but we are proud to today!
"We played as juniors but this was our first WTA event together, and we hope to play more tournaments now. Our goal is to make it to the Grand Slams."