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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 June 2018

Maria Sharapova relies on champion's grit to end lengthy wait for title at Tianjin Open

Russian former world No 1 was by no means at her best, but her powers of resilience ensured she claimed a first title since returning from a doping ban.

Maria Sharapova celebrates after beating Arnya Sabalenka in the final of the Tianjin Open on Sunday. Wang Zhao / AFP
Maria Sharapova celebrates after beating Arnya Sabalenka in the final of the Tianjin Open on Sunday. Wang Zhao / AFP

It was far from straightforward but Maria Sharapova will not care after the Russian former world No 1 claimed her first title in nearly two-and-a-half years at the Tianjin Open on Sunday.

Sharapova, 30, had to fight back from losing positions in both sets, including a 1-5 deficit in the second, to defeat Belarus's Aryna Sabalenka 7-5, 7-6. Sharapova is back in the winners circle for the first time since May 2015 when she claimed the Italian Open title.

Of course, Sharapova's lengthy time between titles was not a result of injury or loss of form, but her 15-month doping suspension that ruled her out of action from after the Australian Open in January 2016 until the Stuttgart Open in April this year.

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Upon her return and without an official world ranking, Sharapova has had to rely on a string of wildcards, including in Tianjin, to gain entry into the WTA's premier events as she set about climbing back to the top of women's tennis.

In the six months leading up to her latest title - the 36th of her career - Sharapova has produced mixed results; some good - including a march to the semi-finals in Stuttgart and the fourth round of the US Open - and some bad, like the three successive second round defeats in Madrid, Rome, and Stanford.

However, you cannot keep a champion down for long and Sharapova needed to call on all of her champion qualities to stave off the threat posed by Sabalenka.

Breaking the Sabalenka serve with ease in the first game of the match, Sharapova looked as though she could replicate her ruthless victory over Shuai Peng in the semi-final. Sabalenka had other ideas and claimed four of the next five games to take control of the first set.

Sharapova's trademark grit came to the fore at the ideal time, earning the crucial break back after a marathon seventh game. The Russian then cranked up the pressure on the Sabalenka serve in the 11th game to force the break before closing out the opening set.

If the partisan Sharapova crowd inside the Tianjin stadium expected to see the Russian make lighter work of the second set, then they would be very much mistaken.

Sabalenka, who had impressed throughout the tournament and entered the final having not dropped a set, flew out of the blocks to race into a 5-1 lead and looked set to take the final to a decider.

However, Sharapova came fighting back, breaking Sabalenka's serve three times to win five straight games and set herself up to serve for the match. Again, Sabalenka refused to fold and forced the tie-break after claiming the break at the third time of asking.

The tie-break proved equally competitive before Sharapova closed out the match 10-8 on her fourth match point.

This performance was by no means the most refined of Sharapova's long and illustrious career. Her first serve success was an underwhelming 49 per cent and she faced 10 break points, fending off five of them. Sharapova struggled to dictate from the baseline as she had throughout the tournament and the error count continued to creep up during the second set until her stirring fightback.

Plenty of credit must go to Sabalenka for her fight in this battle. At 19 years old and still combining her time between the ITF and WTA Tours, Sabalenka looks to have a promising career ahead of her. She will break into the top 100 when the new rankings are released on Monday.

This instead was a battle of wills, and there are few more resilient in the sporting arena than Sharapova.

With a first title on the shelf since her return and that winning feeling once again coursing through her veins, Sharapova now heads home to Russia for the Kremlin Cup in Moscow where organizers have granted her a wildcard.

Can she make it two wins from two? Confidence is high, her game is getting closer to pre-suspension levels, and she will enjoy plenty of support. As she has proved throughout her career, never write off Sharapova.