Yesterday belonged to the Russian teenager Maria Kirilenko as she won her first ever WTA title in Beijing at the China Open.
Kirilenko defeated Anna-Lena Groenefeld, of Germany, in an absorbing 6-3, 6-4 victory in the women's final.
Following an array of big name withdrawals, the centre court was left to the two promising stars, but that did not influence the enthusiastic fans. Over 5,000 spectators packed the stands, the highest figure during the two-week event.
Cheered by hundreds of Russian fans, the 18-year-old Russia displayed a sparkling performance, dominating the match from start to finish.
"I am so happy to win the title. It's my first championship and it is so amazing," said Kirilenko at a news conference afterwards. "I still cannot believe it was for real."
Kirilenko reached her only other Tour final this year at the Tier IV event in Hyderabad, falling to Australia's Nicole Pratt. Starting the year at No 111, she has now made 45th after a run to the fourth round at Indian Wells, a WTA Tier I event.
"I hope this is a good start for me," said Kirilenko. "Russia has a lot of top players and I really want to join them."
Groenefeld was also competing in her second career Tour final after finishing runner-up to Conchita Martinez at the Tier IV event in Pattaya City earlier this year.
After receiving a first-round bye, Groenefeld notched up several impressive victories en route to the semis this week, starting with a victory over former world top 10 player Ai Sugiyama, of Japan, in the second round, then a win over hard-hitting Chinese teenager Peng Shuai in the quarters.
Both finalists fought hard right through the match, as Kirilenko survived nine deuces to hold serve and tied at 2-2. She then stepped up to break the German twice and closed the match with a wide cross-court winner.
"The beginning was very tough for me," said Kirilenko. "I spent some time coping with her serve, that really pushed me."
The nine-seeded Groenefeld, who survived a tight opening set but then cruised to a 7-5, 6-3 victory over Polish teenager Marta Domachowska in her semi-final match, tried her best to recover form as she gained an early break of service and reeled off her over 180 kph service to keep her title dream alive.
But after an energy-sapping first set that lasted for one hour, Groenefeld appeared to run out of gas in the second set, which saw her slow down and start to make unforced errors.
Kirilenko, who did not drop a set en route to the final this week, took her chance, stamping her authority on the court in the second set when she broke the German's serve in the fourth and sixth games to lead 5-3.
The German showed no sign of letting the game slip away as she broke back to 5-4, forcing Kirilenko to call a medical timeout.
But it was the fighting Russian who held her nerve to break Groenefeld again before wrapping up the match in 98 minutes.
"I tried to forget that I was playing for my first championship," said Kirilenko. "That made me too nervous, but finally I won. It's so great.
Her German rival also had high praise for her.
"She played so well," said Groenefeld. "A big serve is my weapon but she just returned too good and I didn't get back my feeling anymore, that's the key to why I lost the game."
The China Open 2005 was an injury-plagued tournament. In addition to top-ranked Sharapova, top seeds Venus Williams and Lindsay Davenport also withdrew with injuries.
In the doubles final Sunday, Nuria Llagostera Vives of Spain and Maria Vento-Kabchi of Venezuela defeated Chinese duo Yan Zi and Zheng Jie 6-2, 6-4.
(China Daily September 26, 2005)