TIANJIN (China) • Maria Sharapova was made to fight by 102nd-ranked teenager Aryna Sabalenka at the Tianjin Open yesterday before winning her first tennis title since her 15-month doping ban.
The former world No. 1, who returned to action in April, came from behind in both sets and needed four championship points in the tie-breaker before beating the 19-year-old 7-5, 7-6 (10-8) in 2hr 5min.
Sharapova clasped her hands to her chest in delight as she absorbed the feeling of winning her 36th tour title and first in more than two years since the 2015 Italian Open.
The 30-year-old was contesting the seventh tournament of what has been an injury-plagued and controversial comeback since testing positive for the banned substance meldonium early last year.
She exchanged 11 breaks of serve with the Belarusian, who was playing her first WTA Tour final, before finally clinching it in the tie-breaker when Sabalenka's forehand return went long.
In a tight match between two shriekers, the teenager was broken in the opening game although she then went on to win four games in a row and go 4-1 up.
Sharapova's coach Sven Groeneveld urged her to use the body serve and the momentum shifted immediately as she held the next game and then edged a nine-minute seventh-game to wrest it back on serve.
An angry Sabalenka slammed her racket as she double-faulted and was broken for a third time and with Sharapova serving at 6-5, the Belarusian overcooked a forehand to hand over the set.
The second set followed a similar pattern and Sabalenka was 5-1 up before Sharapova reeled her in, breaking three times before serving for the match at 6-5. But a double fault from the Russian took it to a closely contested tie-break.
Sharapova, whose ranking has dropped to 86, has been playing on wild cards this season. Her return has proven divisive, with some rivals insisting she should not be back on tour at all.
The five-time Grand Slam winner now heads to this week's Kremlin Cup in Moscow for the first time since 2007, after also being given a wild card.