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Beyond the Baseline

Aces and Faults: Sharapova victorious in Stuttgart; Nishikori wins Barcelona

Maria Sharapova has never lost a game in the Stuttgart tournament. (Adam Pretty/Bongart/Getty Images) Maria Sharapova has never lost a game in the Stuttgart tournament. (Adam Pretty/Bongart/Getty Images)

Aces and Faults recaps the week in tennis. Last week, Maria Sharapova won her third-straight title in Stuttgart, Kei Nishikori reigned supreme at the Barcelona Open after Rafael Nadal's early exit, Grigor Dimitrov beat the defending champion to win in Bucharest and Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor won her first WTA title.

Trophy winners

Maria Sharapova: Sharapova drove away with her third Porsche -- does she really need another one? -- after coming back from a set and a break down to win 11 of the last 13 games and defeat Ana Ivanovic 3-6, 6-4, 6-1. The win was her third-straight Stuttgart title (she's 12-0 at the tournament), first title of the season and 30th WTA title. It's also the first time Sharapova has ever won a tournament three times.

"For the first half of the match I thought it might not be my day today, but somehow I turned it around," Sharapova said. "I had quite a slow beginning to the year, but me and my team have been working hard to get in the position to win titles again, and I'm so happy to be able to do it in Stuttgart." 

Her signature win came way back in the first round -- a 7-6 (5), 6-7 (5), 7-6 (2) win over Lucie Safarova that lasted nearly three-and-a-half hours.

Highlights from the final below:

http://youtu.be/-DadCbLQthY

Kei Nishikori: Nishikori survived the chaos at the Barcelona Open, capturing his second title of the season and his first-career title on clay. Seeded No. 4, Nishikori scored two solid straight-set wins over Ernests Gulbis and Marin Cilic before beating surprise finalist, Santiago Giraldo 6-2, 6-2 in the final to become the first Japanese player to win an ATP clay-court title. This was his first tournament since he beat Roger Federer at the Sony Open and then had to withdraw from the semifinals due to a groin injury.

Nishikori's results this year have been stellar. Through seven tournaments he's won two titles, reached the semifinals twice and made the fourth round of the Australian Open. Now up to No. 12 in the rankings (just one shy of his career-best), it seems like he'll be in the top 10 as long as the injury-prone 24-year old can keep his body healthy.

Check out his speed in this scrambling hot shot from the final:

http://youtu.be/cZXVdtuHHPU

Grigor Dimitrov: Since teaming up with Roger Rasheed last October, Dimitrov is 29-8 with three titles and an Australian Open quarterfinal under his belt. In his first tournament as a No. 1 seed, Dimitrov rolled to the title in Bucharest, beating defending champion Lukas Rosol 7-6 (2), 6-1 to win the BRD Nastase Tiriac Trophy. He matches his career-high ATP rank of No. 14 this week.

http://youtu.be/-aiNAOVJwVI

Maria-Teresa Torro-Flor: The WTA has yet another first-time winner this season. 22-year-old Torro-Flor won her first WTA final, beating Romina Oprandi 6-3, 3-6, 6-3 to win the Grand Prix SAR La Princesse Lalla Meryem. The win launches the young Spaniard into the top 50 for the first time. 

http://youtu.be/pW2cG0J97og

More aces

Nick Kyrgios: The young Aussie celebrated his 19th birthday in style by defeating Jack Sock 2-6, 7-6(4), 6-4 to win his second straight ATP Challenger in Savannah, Ga. He became the first teenager since Grigor Dimitrov in 2010 to win back-to-back Challenger titles, and he'll rise to No. 151 in the rankings. 

Taylor Townsend: The 17-year-old won her first pro ITF tournament, losing just one set en route to the title at the $50,000 event in Charlottesville, Va. To top it off, she also won the doubles title with Asia Muhammed. The win puts her in the running for the USTA's French Open wildcard.

Ana Ivanovic: There's no doubt that she's disappointed in herself, letting that lead slip away from her in the final, but this was Ivanovic's first final on clay since winning the French Open in 2008, if you can believe it. It was also her first Premier final since 2008, and she was just three games away from becoming the tour leader in titles this year. With the French Open looking as wide open as it has in a few years, Ivanovic is putting herself in prime position to be a dark-horse pick. 

Alisa Kleybanova: With her run to the Stuttgart quarterfinals, Kleybanova is back into the top 100 for the first time since January of 2012. Nice work.

Rafael Nadal cannot control the ball against Nicolas Almagro at the Barcelona Open. (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images) Rafael Nadal cannot control the ball against Nicolas Almagro at the Barcelona Open. (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

Faults

Rafael Nadal: It doesn't feel right that Nadal ends up on our Faults list for the second time in two weeks after yet another clay tournament, but the eight-time Barcelona Open champion suffered his first loss in 11 years at the tournament, losing to Nicolas Almagro 2-6, 7-6 (5), 6-4 in the quarterfinals. It was his first career loss to Almagro in 11 matches.

Highlights from the match below:

http://youtu.be/QV8pNTUDXA4

The most surprising thing about the loss is Nadal's inability to hold a lead. He won the first set easily and held a 3-1 lead in the second set tiebreak before Almagro was able to storm back and take it 7-5. In the final set, Nadal again jumped out to a 3-1 lead only to see his serve broken three times. Serving for the match, Almagro fell to 15-40, but was able to hold off Nadal and finally serve it out. That's a slew of opportunities that Nadal uncharacteristically let go. He still has two big tournaments left to get his confidence back before his title defense at Roland Garros, making it a bit early to push the panic button, but there's definitely reason to be concerned.

Petra Kvitova: Another one-and-done tournament for Kvitova, who lost her opening round match in Stuttgart to Kleybanova. She's failed to win a match at three of her seven tournaments this season, though it should be noted that she was coming off Fed Cup duty on quick indoor hard courts last weekend.

David Ferrer: Any momentum gained with his win over Nadal in Monte Carlo was dashed with his straight-set loss to Teymuraz Gabashvili in his first match in Barcelona. 

Simona Halep: In her first WTA tournament since Indian Wells, Halep walked away winless in a 7-5, 7-6 (4) loss to Svetlana Kuznetsova. Given Kuznetsova's credentials, that's not a horrible loss on paper, but it was an error-strewn performance from Halep, who seemed to be cruising at 5-2 in the first set. She went on to win just one more point in the set, losing 15 straight points during one stretch, to hand the set to Kuznetsova.

Photo of the week

Kei Nishikori celebrates his victory at the Barcelona Open by jumping into the club's pool. (Getty Images) Kei Nishikori celebrates his victory at the Barcelona Open by jumping into the club's pool. (Getty Images)

Go figure

40: Consecutive wins for Sharapova on clay against opponents other than Serena Williams. Since the 2012 clay season, she has lost just three times on the surface, all to Serena.

0: Sets lost by Dimitrov en route to the Bucharest title.

12: Consecutive years a Spaniard won the Barcelona Open. Nishikori ended that streak.

1996: The last time the Barcelona Open did not feature a Spaniard.

6: Number of first-time WTA champions this year, with five of them aged 22-and-under. Torro-Flor added her name to that list with her win in Marrakech.

44: Consecutive sets won by Nadal in Barcelona before his loss to Almagro this week.

In case you missed it

• Victoria Azarenka is out of the Madrid Open and Italian Open with her ongoing foot injury. She announced the news via Vine. Because that's what the kids do these days.

• Novak Djokovic is going to be a dad.

• Lucie Safarova: Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. She's now played three memorable three set matches that could have gone her way, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion. First there was the match point miss she had against Li Na at the Australian Open. Then there was the three-set epic she played against Sharapova at the Sony Open that saw her save a host of match points. Now she's played another tight one against Sharapova and lost in a three-tiebreak match, the first on the WTA since 2010. Anne Keothavong, who now commentates for Britain's BT Sport said it best:

• Svetlana Kuznetsova looks healthy again and for the first time this season she won back-to-back matches at a tournament. Was it a one-off situation or the signal of a trend? She's someone to keep an eye on in Madrid and Rome.

• Laura Robson underwent wrist surgery and then posted a loopy Instagram video.

• No surprise that the German Fed Cup team went 1 for three in Stuttgart after their long trek down to Australia and back. Julia Goerges was the only one who won a match -- a good win over Sorana Cirstea -- while the Fed Cup heroes Angelique Kerber and Andrea Petkovic lost to Carla Suarez Navarro and Flavia Pennetta, respectively. In fact, it wasn't a great showing for the Germans regardless of Fed Cup duty. Sabine Lisicki, Annika Beck, and Mona Barthel didn't win matches either.

• The Stuttgart and Bucharest champions have been reunited in Madrid.

Nicolas Almagro celebrates his first-career victory over Rafael Nadal. (Getty Images) Nicolas Almagro celebrates his first-career victory over Rafael Nadal. (Getty Images)

• Nicolas Almagro: Beats No. 1 Nadal, loses to No. 65 Giraldo 24 hours later. There are few things more deflating in tennis than the lack of follow-up after a big upset. 

Passing shots

• Beating Nadal on clay in a best-of-five format is a completely different ask than best-of-three.

• That said, will 2014 be for the ATP what 2011 was for the WTA?

• I enjoy Sugarpova as much as the next person, but Sharapova's transformation into "Claypova" remains one of the most interesting stories every time the clay season rolls around. Equal parts impressive and baffling.

• The Stuttgart crowd remains one of the best in women's tennis.

• Dimitrov handled his first tournament as a No. 1 seed well. I like that.

• Until Serena returns -- whenever that may be -- this WTA clay season is impossible to call. And even then...

• Dear Tennis Gods: Please do what you can to keep Kei Nishikori healthy.

• I would be surprised to see Azarenka back on court before the U.S. Open Series.
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