BEIJING, China -- Maria Sharapova won her first hard court title in 19 months, beating No. 3 Petra Kvitova 6-4, 2-6, 6-3 to win her first China Open title and fourth of the season. With the win, Sharapova rises to No. 2 and opens up the possibility she could finish the season at No. 1 ahead of Serena Williams. The loss was Kvitova's first in a final this season and drops her to No. 4.
"I didn't feel like I had a very easy draw at this tournament," Sharapova said. "I played six tough matches and I came through with some really positive scorelines. I'd say based on this week that it was a really great win for me."
The possibility of finishing at No. 1 didn't seem likely earlier this season. Coming off a right shoulder injury that prematurely ended her 2013 season, Sharapova dropped to No. 9 after failing to make a final in the first three months of the 2014 slate. She turned her season around when the tour turned to clay. She went 19-1 on the dirt, winning Stuttgart, Madrid, and then her second French Open title. However, she failed to make the semifinals or better at four of her next five tournaments since that French Open win. Last week at the Wuhan Open she lost to Swiss qualifier Timea Bacsinszky in straight sets. Her dominant run to the China Open title, her first hard court title in 19 months, was another illustration of resiliency.
She rolled past Svetlana Kuznetsova and Ana Ivanovic by the same 6-0, 6-4 scorelines. She did not lose a set heading into the final against Kvitova and all facets of her game were clicking, even her serve. In Sunday's final she was the better server, better returner, and better defender. In a battle between two offensive-minded players, her steadiness was the difference. Sharapova was able to get 86 percent of her returns in play against Kvitova's serve, which wasn't at its best. In the final set Sharapova upped her return rate to 90 percent. While 14 percent of Kvitova's serves were left unreturned, 35 percent of Sharapova's were unreturned. Sharapova was better on average serve speed as well.
"It's not easy playing against Petra," Sharapova said. "You don't always quite get a good rhythm. She goes for a lot of shots, you know, very deep. She's a very good, confident player. Coming into this match, I know she's been on a roll in the last couple of weeks. That's never easy. It's probably the toughest opponent you can face in a final, that's had that success."
Despite what the final stat lines would indicate, Kvitova had her chances. She broke Sharapova early in the first set before Sharapova broke back to keep things level. Serving at 4-5, Kvitova grew tentative. She is at her best when able to hold the baseline and go for winners but she backed off and began to play with more margin. With Sharapova getting the better of Kvitova in rallies that proved disastrous, Sharapova went on to break and serve out the set. Kvitova rebounded to play a near-lights out set in the second to level the match. Thirteen of her 23 winners came in the second set, as her serve and groundstrokes came back on line.
But with the match reduced to a one-set shootout it was Sharapova who was able to lift her game. Kvitova hit just three winners in the final frame, as Sharapova broke her and raced to a 3-0 lead. Kvitova was broken twice in the set and Sharapova served out the match at love. Sharapova finished with 18 winners to 33 unforced errors -- 10 of which were double-faults -- while Kvitova hit 23 winners and 44 unforced errors. Kvitova, who was playing her 10th match in 13 days, struggled with fatigue in her semifinal match and the legs weren't there for her on Sunday either.
"I didn't serve well in the third set," Kvitova said. "That was not really helping me. When she returns, we are playing more rallies. It's little bit tougher." Kvitova will return to Europe to rest and prepare for the WTA Finals in Singapore. "I have little bit more confidence than I have probably before I came to Asia," she said. "I think in the tennis, it's a lot about the mentally side. That was really important to have it back." Though Kvitova entered to play the Kremlin Cup in Moscow, she has yet to decide whether she'll skip the tournament.
This marks the first time since 2006 that Sharapova has won four titles in a season. The doubts that surrounded her career after yet another shoulder injury helped her put her season in perspective.
"It's so rewarding, honestly," she said. "At this time [last] year, I was somewhere in Europe getting treatment for my shoulder, just trying to find different medical perspectives and advice on how to treat it and how to get it better, obviously not knowing I wasn't going to play for the rest of the year. I missed the US Open already, was going to miss the Championships. It was mentally a tough time because I was just in the middle of Europe trying to find a solution, yet everyone was still playing. It's definitely great to be a year later in a situation where this is my fourth title of the year, you know, a Grand Slam this year. You look back and think about how you kind of struggled, but you kept going."