SEOUL, South Korea - No.2 seed Kiki Bertens continued her career-best year by adding a seventh title to her collection at the KEB Hana Bank Korea Open, coming from a break down in the deciding set to squeeze past the unseeded Ajla Tomljanovic 7-6(2), 4-6, 6-2 in two hours and 22 minutes.
"I knew I had to play good to win today," Bertens said afterwards. "She's a great fighter and she showed that this week. I knew I had to play aggressive and make her move around the court, to play with all the energy I had in me and to be positive all the time - that was the goal."
The trophy is the Dutchwoman's third of the season, following championship runs in Charleston and Cincinnati, and second overall on hard courts - bolstering the newfound ability she has demonstrated in 2018 to transfer her weighty clay game to other surfaces. Indeed, Bertens has won 20 of her past 23 matches stretching back to Wimbledon across grass and hard courts. In terms of title count for the season, she is now level with Simona Halep and Elise Mertens on three each, with only Petra Kvitova's five trophies ahead of them.
For Tomljanovic, who played a three-setter in each of her matches this week, the loss drops her to a 0-3 career record in finals; previously, the 25-year-old was runner-up in Pattaya in 2015 to Daniela Hantuchova and in Rabat this May to Elise Mertens.
Until its final stretch, the match was narrowly contested, with neither player able to seize sufficient momentum for a lead of more than two games, and each set was won after a comeback from a break deficit. Initially, powerful but conservative groundstroke exchanges dominated proceedings as both players tried to force errors via their weight of shot and moving the ball around the court - and it was Bertens whose point construction was more consistently effective, tallying 15 winners to 17 errors in the first set compared to Tomljanovic's less impressive five winners and 16 errors.
However, the 26-year-old would be significantly hindered by inconsistency on serve today. Three double faults in the opening game put her down an immediate break; a fourth paved the way to another break in the fifth game, and Bertens would be plagued by six in the opening set.
But both times, the Australian would concede her lead in the very next game with a slew of errant groundstrokes, and the set would be ultimately decided in a tiebreak - which Bertens dominated, aided by the timely rediscovery of her first serve and four mistakes off the Tomljanovic backhand wing.
The second set again saw momentum shift back and forth. Tomljanovic, now employing the dropshot with frequency and efficiency, again drew first blood for 2-0 - but the Wimbledon quarterfinalist conjured up two forehand down-the-line hammer blows to immediately break back, and four games later moved into the lead herself with a backhand pass.
But two games from defeat, the World No.53 would hit her stride. Tomljanovic would reel off five games in a row with her best tennis of the match, with another series of dropshots punctuated by big baseline hitting enabling her to break Bertens twice in a row to take the match into a decider.
Once there, the quality of the match peaked in the first two games as the Rabat finalist took a 2-0 lead. Tomljanovic withstood the loss of two epic points - one 30-shot and one 26-shot exchange - in the opening game, saving a break point with a magnificent backhand pass hit while moving backwards; a desperate lunge volley in the next game paid off as Bertens sent the ensuing sitter wide, and a banger of a backhand return put the former World No.47 into a 2-0 lead.
As she held two points for a 3-0 lead, Tomljanovic's maiden title seemed within her grasp. But a battling Bertens would once again use her powerful forehand to wrest back control.
Having seized back the break, the 2016 Roland Garros semifinalist began to dictate proceedings at last. Her serve, which had hampered her so much in the opening stages of the match, was now clicking: the third set would see no further double faults from Bertens, but instead a tally of 11 aces. The World No.12's inside-out forehand, too, would be an important weapon as she conjured up a series of brilliant angles - helping to take her total of winners to 40, compared to Tomljanovic's 18.
Tomljanovic, who had come through three-setters in each of her four matches en route to the final, was unable to essay another fight back, with the 25-year-old's forehand in increasing disarray as her fifth deciding set of the week slid away from her. With Bertens in increasing command of every aspect of her game, the Charleston and Cincinnati champion reeled off the final six games of the match, sealing the title with a forehand pass on her second match point.
The 2017 doubles champion in Seoul alongside Johanna Larsson, Bertens said that last year's experience had helped her today - and that, naturally, the tournament is one of her favorite stops on tour. "It's always nice to come back with great memories of holding the trophy," she smiled. "I really like it here, the fans are great, we have a fun time around - shopping, some good restaurants. That's what I like the most, that we can relax a bit off the court."
Bertens plans to take full advantage of those restaurants tonight - if her travel schedule permits, anyway. "Normally I like to enjoy [a title] with good food and a nice glass of wine," she revealed. "I don't know if that's a good idea tonight - we have to get up early and get our flights [to Wuhan]. But titles - you have to celebrate them, this is what you play for!"
Nonetheless, for Tomljanovic a second final in 2018 marks a strong comeback from the shoulder surgery that put her out of action for almost the whole of the 2016 season. Having ended that year ranked No.930, the Australian will now return to the Top 50 and hit a new career high, surpassing the peak of No.47 she first hit in February 2015.
Bertens, meanwhile, will boost her chances of reaching the WTA Finals in singles for the first time in her career; currently ranked No.8 in the Porsche Race to Singapore, this week's performance will have strengthened her position significantly.