TIANJIN, China -- Former World No.1 Maria Sharapova tasted singles championship triumph for the first time in over two years, defeating Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus in a hard-hitting affair, 7-5, 7-6(8), to win the Tianjin Open on Sunday.
Sharapova rebounded from deep deficits in both sets to outlast the first-time WTA finalist in over two hours, and claimed her first championship since the Internazionali BNL d'Italia in 2015, and the 36th WTA singles title of her career. The five-time Grand Slam champion won the title without dropping a set.
"It is a special title and a special victory. It has been a couple of years since I have held the winner's trophy," Sharapova said.
"It is a great feeling, and this was a team effort. We all work together with my coach and everyone that has been involved in the last few years, so I just really appreciate the opportunity of playing in this event, getting the wildcard and coming out as champion. There are a lot of good things to take away from the week."
Nevertheless, it was a sterling week for Sabalenka, whose first career WTA final will allow her to make her Top 100 debut on Monday. Sharapova, meanwhile, will try to keep her winning streak going next week, as she will attempt to win the Kremlin Cup, in her home nation of Russia, for the first time.
"There is still one more event to go. I am really looking forward to playing in my home country as the last event of the year," Sharapova said. "Coming there with the title already means a lot, but I do really want to finish strong even though it is a very fast turnaround and I don't remember the last time that I played three events in a row. I will give it everything I have got and I know I have so many amazing fans there."
The match was hotly contested, as only five points separated the accomplished veteran from the rising teenager. Sharapova broke Sabalenka's serve six times, and the extra break in the first set proved to be decisive. Sharapova also had seven aces, which helped get her out of difficult situations.
Sabalenka started nervously, and was quickly broken in the first game of the match. But the Belarussian went on a tear after that, winning four straight games en route to a 4-1 lead, including the first seven points of the match on Sharapova’s serve due to incredibly aggressive returning.
After dropping her serve twice in routine fashion, Sharapova finally held for 4-2, and pumped her fist in exhilaration. She then got back on serve at 4-3 after a 16-point game, which featured huge hitting by both players before Sharapova converted her fourth break point of the game.
Sharapova began to take control from there, breaking Sabalenka for a 6-5 lead with a forehand winner down the line on break point. A visibly frustrated Sabalenka stuck with Sharapova in the next game, but the Russian closed out the set when a Sabalenka forehand went wide.
Sabalenka regrouped, and she raced out to another 4-1 lead in the second set. The World No.101 broke Sharapova for 2-0 with an exceptional forehand return winner, and her serve was impenetrable in the early stages of the set.
After claiming an insurance break to lead 5-1, Sabalenka served to send the match into a decider. But, once again, Sharapova clawed her way back into another set. Sabalenka was broken twice in a row, and Sharapova found herself back on serve at 5-4.
Sharapova then had to fend off a set point serving at 5-4, but she was able to knot the match at 5-5. Then in that game, Sharapova hit a down-the-line forehand winner to break Sabalenka for the third straight time, and after winning five consecutive games, she had a chance to serve for the title at 6-5.
But the Russian star blinked, double faulting down break point to send the second set into a tiebreak. After reaching 3-3 in the tiebreak, the players dropped four straight points on serve, but Sharapova finally held again for 6-5 and her first match point.
Sabalenka survived that match point, and two more, as the tiebreak extended further. But when the 19-year-old Belarussian double faulted at 8-8 to give Sharapova her fourth match point, it was a bridge too far. A final powerful serve was returned long to give Sharapova her first trophy of the season.
"When so many things come together - when you start all the way from the beginning of the tournament and it was so cold and not as many spectators - and then you end up playing the final in a full stadium with so much enthusiasm and energy and you are the one that wins the last point, just everything falls into place," Sharapova assessed.
"You have to appreciate those moments, and never take them for granted."