Paolini Completes Memorable Week In Portoroz With WTA Title Victory

Jasmine Paolini (photo: Vid Ponikvar/Sportida)

WASHINGTON, September 19, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

When Jasmine Paolini reflects upon the week that was in Portoroz, a resort town along Slovenia’s Adriatic coast, she’ll remember the journey that she took to win her first WTA tour-level title at the Zavarovalnica Sava Portoroz.

After all, the 25-year-old Italian beat four quality, seeded opponents during the week-long WTA 250 outdoor hard court event. But just as important, Paolini made sure the court conditions were safe and playable both for her and her opponent, Alison Riske of the United States, before the first ball was struck in their championship final Sunday evening.

Once the rain subsided and the court became dry and safely playable, following a two-hour and 55-minute delay, both the No. 3 seed Riske and unseeded Paolini were ready to do battle before a small but enthusiastic crowd that remained at Tennis Center Portoroz.

As the 38th-ranked Riske sought her third WTA title and first in two years, the tough-as-nails Paolini, who came to Potoroz riding on a career-high ranking of 87th, stood in between the American and the champion’s trophy.

Keeping in mind that as Paolini had already knocked out a trio of seeded players – including No. 2 Yulia Putintsevaen route to the title match, Riske predicted during her on-court interview after her Saturday semifinal that “I think it’s going to be a battle.” She was 100 percent right.

While it was the 10th time that Riske (2-7 in WTA tour-level finals coming in) had played for a tour-level crown, Paolini had never experienced a title match at this level.

As it happened, in their first career head-to-head meeting, Paolini overcame the rain delay, recovered from being two breaks down in the opening set and, finally, after an hour and 45 minutes, won 7-6 (4), 6-2.

Her Cinderella story was complete and it was Paolini who displayed a huge grin as she raced to the net to receive congratulations and a warm and friendly hug from her fallen opponent, the 31-year-old Riske.

During the trophy ceremony, Paolini expressed her happiness in giving her victory speech. “I’m just so happy for this win,” she said. “It’s my first title, so it’s very special to me. It was an amazing week. It felt like being at home. Grazie!”

Ever gracious and diplomatic in defeat, Riske tried to hide her disappointment while maintaining a smile on her face. It wasn’t easy. “First of all, congratulations Jasmine,” Riske said. “You were just way too good tonight. I think I can count on one hand how many balls you missed! You really deserve [the victory]. Congrats on a great week.”

The opening set was one in which there were plenty of nerves on display – not to mention six breaks of serve, in which Paolini went from being 1-3 down to 6-5 ahead after stringing together four straight games by taking advantage of two service breaks against Riske and consolidating both of them.

Riske heroically held her serve to force a first-set tie break after 52 minutes of back-and-forth play. It was then that Paolini put up a fight and won the tie break 7-4 as Riske lost her serve five times. While it was a 61-minute set that could have gone either way – and, perhaps, the Italian shouldn’t have won it – Paolini proved the steadier performer. Both she and Riske hit nine winners and while Paolini made 22 unforced errors, Riske committed 27.

“I think I was maybe a little bit more relaxed,” Paolini explained during her post-match press conference, quoted by the WTA website. “I understood more about the game, I tried to change the rhythm of the game with higher balls, and I think that was the key.”

During the break between the first and second sets, while Riske went off to the bathroom, Paolini took a medical time out to receive treatment on her left thigh. When play resumed, Paolini immediately broke Riske for the fourth time in the match and it seemed to light a fire in her. In the ensuing 14-point second game, Paolini saved three break points and held for a 2-0 advantage. However, Riske rewarded herself with a break of Paolini to pull even at 2-all. However, it was short-lived as Paolini attacked her way to her fifth break of Riske’s serve to grab a 3-2 lead. She consolidated the break and pushed ahead 4-2, inching ever closer to her first WTA tour-level title.

Then, the plucky Paolini quickly gained break points on Riske’s serve in the seventh game and cashed in at 30-40 as the American hit the seventh ball of the rally wide. Ahead 5-2 with the set, match and title on her racquet, Paolini gained a match point at 40-30 – and made it count after Riske netted one final forehand return.

Paolini finished with 15 winners and struck 33 unforced errors while converting six of 10 break-point opportunities against Riske. Meanwhile, the American ended the final by hitting 13 winners but committed 44 unforced errors. She was four for seven in break-point conversions. Thanks to some remarkable shotmaking throughout, Paolini outpointed Riske 73-59.

“I’m working really hard in the past couple of months,” Paolini said. “I understood more about my game, I think. I just want to keep this level for all the season that is almost finished, and to stay strong and keep this level.”

As the title match ended, Paolini clinched her right fist to celebrate the moment that was five years in the making following her tour debut in 2016. She flashed a big, infectious smile toward the TV camera. Indeed, the moment was Paolini’s to enjoy – heck, the whole week – and it was definitely worth the wait.

Kalinskaya and Mihalikova win Potoroz doubles title

The Portoroz doubles title was won by the unseeded team of Anna Kalinskaya of Russia and Tereza Mihalikova of Slovakia, who in back-to-back matches this weekend upset the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds. It was their first doubles title together.

After beating No. 1 seeds Andreja Klepac and Tamara Zidansek, both of Slovenia, 6-4, 7-6 (7), in Saturday’s semifinal round, Kalinskaya and Mihalikova pulled off another stunning victory in Sunday’s final by defeating No. 2 seeds Lesley Pattinama Kerkhove of the Netherlands and Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia, 4-6, 6-2, 12-10, in an hour and 49 minutes. They outpointed their opponents 66-63 during the title match.

It capped a winning week in which the Russian/Slovakian duo (Kalinskaya is ranked 123rd while Mihalikova is No. 164) lost just one set in four matches in their first pairing together.

Tauson wins second WTA title at Luxembourg Open

As the 25th anniversary of the BGL BNP Paribas Luxembourg Open unfolded Sunday afternoon in Kockelscheuer, a small town south of the capital city in this European country surrounded by Belgium, France and Germany, the memories created by past champions Kim Clijsters, Victoria Azarenka, Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki brought to mind the history that this WTA 250 indoor hard court tournament has enjoyed over year years.

Defending 2019 champion Jelena Ostapenko, 24, of Latvia and the youngest player in this year’s draw, 18-year-old Clara Tauson from Denmark, hoped to add to the tournament’s rich history when they met to decide this year’s title winner. And for the duration of their two-hour and three-minute tussle, they did add to the event’s saga.

A packed crowd inside the cozy confines of Kockelscheuer Tennis Centre added to the excitement of the afternoon as fans cheered the efforts of both finalists equally.

While the No. 3 seed and 30th-ranked Ostapenko, looking to win her fifth career WTA singles title, was bidding to become the fourth player to successfully defend her Luxembourg title and first since Clijsters in 2001-03, Tauson had other ideas.

Like Ostapenko, the 70th-ranked Tauson was attempting to win her second WTA title in 2021 following her earlier success at Lyon in March, when she swept from qualifier to champion. The winner would become the seventh multiple titlist on the WTA tour.

In the end, it was Tauson who prevailed, excelling on the fast indoor court. The Danish teenager eked out a 6-3, 4-6, 6-4 victory by breaking Ostapenko at love while winning three of the last four games of the match. It was her sixth straight three-set victory including three during her title run in Luxembourg – and her third win against a seeded player this week – and her victory over Ostapenko represented the highest-ranked player she has beaten this year. Tauson is projected to rise to No. 52 in the new WTA rankings.

After Tauson was feted by a confetti shower during the trophy ceremony, she remarked:

“It’s so nice to be back playing in front of a crowd. It really helped me today. I felt a little bit tired today, but I really felt [the crowd’s] energy.

“I’ve heard a great history of this tournament. I hope to come back next year.”

Playing calm and steady, Tauson showed great composure throughout the 29-minute opening set. She parlayed a pair of service breaks, in the third and ninth games, to win in back of a reliable first serve that produced three aces and yielded an 81 percent (13 of 16) proficiency rate. Tauson hit 11 winners and did not face any break points as she outpointed Ostapenko 29-20.

Then, at 3-all in the second set, Ostapenko gained her first break points of the match. On her second opportunity, she hit an overhead winner (one of 13 winners in the set) that capped a six-shot rally to break Tauson for a 4-3 advantage. The Latvian consolidated the break to win her third straight game with an eye toward pushing the title match to a decider. After Tauson held to stay in the set, winning the ninth game with a nifty backhand drop shot, Ostapenko put away the 47-minute middle stanza on her serve – and it pushed the match to a third set.

At 1-1 in the decider, Ostapenko broke Tauson at love, winning the game with a blistering forehand winner off of the Dane’s second serve and the momentum was clearly in her favor. Or was it? Tauson broke back in the next game to level the set at 2-all, then saved a pair of break points.

As the pressure began to build, Ostapenko saved two break points as well, but Tauson finally held her serve at the end of the 16-point marathon game for a 3-2 advantage after Ostapenko fired wide with a backhand return. Then, at 4-all, Tauson held her serve firmly at 15 to push ahead 5-4. Finally, she upped the level of her game and broke Ostapenko at love to win the final set. With it, she garnered her second tour-level title.

“In Lyon, I think I had a dream week,” Tauson said in her post-match press conference, quoted by the WTA website. “I played unbelievable tennis and I didn’t think about anything; I just played every match and won easily against really good players.

“Here, I had to fight for every single match, so I might be even happier about this result because it required such a tough fight.”

Tauson, who en route to the final beat No. 4 seed Ekaterina Alexandrova and No. 5 seed Marketa Vondrousova – both in three sets – and played the final with a heavily-taped left thigh, finished with eight aces and hit 31 winners while committing just six unforced errors. She broke Ostapenko four times in eight tries and outpointed her 94-82. The Latvian hit 34 winners but also made 23 unforced errors. She converted two of five break points against Tauson. Tauson outpointed Ostapenko 94-82.

The win improved Tauson’s win-loss record in all competitions to 37-13, including 14-8 on the WTA tour. The loss dropped Ostapenko to 27-16 this season, including 4-5 in WTA finals matches. It also ended a three-match finals winning streak for her, after winning at Linz and Luxembourg in 2019 and earlier this year at Eastbourne.

“I’m disappointed with the way the match was, but congrats to Clara on the win,” Ostapenko said. “Obviously, I was not playing well today after feeling so good. Today, I couldn’t bring my level to the same. I enjoyed my week here, I really like it. Hopefully, I can be back … and hold the [winner’s] trophy, again.”