One of the best matches in 2017 is without a doubt — the St. Petersburg Ladies’ Trophy final between Kristina Mladenovic and Yulia Putintseva. The Frenchwoman came into the tournament with a 0-3 record in her previous WTA finals while the Kazakh was still searching for her first career title. Therefore, this final ensured that either of them would claim the first silverware of their career.
In one of the highest-quality finals of the WTA tour this year, Mladenovic triumphed in three tough sets after a 159-minutes battle which saw Putintseva produce a spirited comeback from 2-6, 2-5 down, but only to come up short eventually. The Frenchwoman struggled to close out the match, having failed to serve out the encounter thrice but she eventually built on her confidence during the match, claiming the tight 6-2, 6-7, 6-4 win.
Mladenovic strolls to take the first set
It was a tricky start to the match for Mladenovic, which came off ironically considering she had an easy path to take the first set. Nerves seemed to have affected the Frenchwoman as unforced errors overwhelmed her in the early stages while Putintseva, surprisingly, started off well with her groundstrokes looking incredibly solid.
Nonetheless, Mladenovic managed to fend off two break points in a marathon 11-minute game to grab the nervy service hold. Some powerful forehands and a variety of play then allowed Mladenovic to claim the first break, coming from 30-0 down to do so. A love service hold then allowed Mladenovic, the lower-ranked player at that point in time, to consolidate the break for a commanding 3-0 lead.
Putintseva finally got onto the scoreboard in the fourth game with a routine hold as her forehands started to become a lethal weapon, but was still too inconsistent for it to trouble Mladenovic. A series of service holds followed and Putintseva soon found herself serving to stay in the set at 2-5 down.
Another marathon game ensued as the Kazakh tried her best to remain in contention while Mladenovic continued to swing freely and attack the vulnerable second serves of Putintseva, saving four game points in that game. Earning three set points, Mladenovic was third-time lucky having been too passive earlier on, triumphing in the lengthy 16-point game to take the first set 6-2.
Putintseva fights back from 2-5 down and sends the match into a decider
Mladenovic seemed on course for the easy victory after earning a break point in the fourth game with the golden opportunity to make the first breakthrough in the second set. The Frenchwoman’s relentless big returns were just too good for Putintseva, who struggled on her serve throughout the match. However, her momentum was killed by a forehand which was sent long, missing the break point and gifting the confidence-boosting service hold to the Kazakh.
Mladenovic soon found herself in danger as Putintseva troubled her with some consistent shots, and never seemed to produce any unforced errors. The time for the Kazakh’s breakthrough came in the fifth game. Putintseva earned her first break points of the set with an impressive passing shot, but failed to capitalize on her chances as Mladenovic regained the momentum. Everything went right for Mladenovic, who entered the tournament with a 0-2 record in WTA events earlier in the year, and she edged closer to her first career title after clinching three consecutive games to open up a 6-2, 5-2 lead.
Being on the brink of defeat, Putintseva stepped up to the occasion while Mladenovic, who was so close yet so far from the win, was clearly affected by the nerves and pressure. In a sudden change of events, Putintseva rattled off 16 of the next 22 points and gained the lead for the first time in the match, grabbing a 6-5 lead out of nowhere. Mladenovic was making countless unforced errors and was unable to find the rhythm on her groundstrokes, especially her forehands. Despite failing to serve out the set, the Kazakh came back from a mini-break deficit in the tiebreak to grab the second set and completed the improbable comeback.
Mladenovic just gets over the finishing line amidst Putintseva’s resistance
Reflecting her tough mentality, Mladenovic overcame the disappointment and sealed the break in the opening game of the final set. The inconsistency on her forehand continued to bother the Frenchwoman as three consecutive errors on that wing gifted Putintseva three break points. However, a lucky net-cord was able to totally change the odds and that shot seemed to change the sides of the momentum as Mladenovic rattled off five straight points to consolidate the break.
The scores were kept tight, but Putintseva fell apart completely after being broken in the fifth game as she went for too much on her shots, allowing Mladenovic to grab a double-break advantage and she soon opened up a formidable 5-1 lead, being just one game away from the win. Nightmares from the previous set came back to haunt her as she failed to handle her nerves well and Putintseva played some of her best tennis on the crucial points, coming up with a bullet-like forehand winner while being on the defence and two backhand return winners to retrieve one of the breaks back.
It was definitely nerve-wracking for both players but Mladenovic had another chance to serve out the match at 5-4 up, with a sense of déjà vu as Putintseva threatened to mount another comeback. However, after what seemed like an eternity, Mladenovic finally sealed the win with a routine service hold, closing the match out with a huge forehand winner.
Reaction from the victor: Mladenovic delighted with the win
“I have no words, really, to express what I feel right now. This win means a lot to me. It was my fourth final, and I'd lost three before that. The wait was definitely worth it because this tournament is just amazing, from the organization all week to the show at the end.” Mladenovic mentioned in her press conference after winning the first WTA title of her career, and she was absolutely delighted with her victory.
Speaking of her failure to close out the match, Mladenovic claimed, “I believe everyone is limitless, and it's just about moving forward with the mentality. Physically, I felt great, though sometimes the nerves made my legs feel heavy. But it came down to fighting spirit. This is what I love most about sports, and what pushes me to be on the court; the more complicated things get, the more I think how much I love this and how much I want to keep battling.”
Stats Corner: Mladenovic’s aggression pushed her to the win
Surprisingly, both Mladenovic and Putintseva were decent on their serves despite the countless number of breaks throughout the encounter. The Frenchwoman won 64 percent of her first service points, compared to Putintseva’s 58. Coupled with nine aces, Mladenovic also threw in five double-faults but she won more than half of her second serve points with Putintseva losing just 14 points behind her second deliveries.
Impressively enough, Mladenovic blasted 62 winners past the defensive Putintseva while only committing 46 unforced errors. However, the Kazakh also put in an excellent performance, firing 31 winners to 22 errors.
Aftermath: Mladenovic breaks new grounds while Putintseva struggles
This match seemed to have a large impact on both players’ year, with the benefit of hindsight. Mladenovic rose 20 spots with her first career title and continued to rise in the rankings as she also reached the finals in Acapulco, Stuttgart, and Madrid. Furthermore, the Frenchwoman also cracked the top-10 towards the end of the year despite ending 2017 on a disappointing 12-match losing streak. Despite rising to a career-high ranking of 27 with this surprising run to the final which saw her earn two top-10 victories, Putintseva had to endure through a lackluster year after reaching just two quarterfinals in the remainder of the year. She also ended the year outside the top-50.