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“Aggressive and smart” – Shnaider barges through Bad Homburg

By Vanessa Taylor

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Unseeded Diana Shnaider was dubbed the “partycrasher” as she rampaged through the draw of the WTA 500 in the beautiful parklands of Bad Homburg.  

She started by knocking out the tournament ambassador and 2021 champion Angelique Kerber in the first round. Kerber had entered the main draw through a protected ranking and showed some form in the match.

Afterwards, Kerber said that although they had never played before, she knew that her opponent had improved in recent months and played a lefty power game. But experiencing Shnaider’s power was overwhelming. She added pensively, “It’s never easy to lose in Germany”.

Centre Court in the Bad Homburg Kurpark. Photo: Daniel Maurer

Aside from Kerber, other mums on the comeback trail were wild card and former world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki and 7th seed Elina Svitolina. The two were drawn to face off in a tantalising first round.

Wozniacki came out blazing for a first set score of 6-3. Next set, Svitolina pounded an empathic volley to win the tiebreak, 7-4.

Early in the third set, Wozniacki ran for the ball and slipped, twisting her leg as she attempted to change direction. With tears in her eyes, she took a medical time out. When she resumed, she was broken for 1-2.

Nature then intervened to suspend play for the first of three consecutive evenings. This time for damp grass; the next for poor light and the third time for rain.

Wozniacki greets Svitolina at the net. Photo: Paul Zimmerman

So, the next day, the players fronted up to finish their match. Svitolina began by extending her lead to 3-1, but Wozniacki stormed back to go up 5-3. Having broken serve to stay in the match, Svitolina lost her own serve for the seventh time and bowed out of Bad Homburg.

Both players racked up several more unforced errors than winners, yet somehow it was a compelling match.

Wozniacki then defeated a sometimes weeping Veronika Kudermetova, 6-2 6-4, before she was forced to retire in her match against 3rd seed Emma Navarro. At 5-4, Wozniacki slipped nastily and tumbled across the grass. A trainer promptly arrived to strap her knee and provide medication.

Emma Navarro practising smashes before her quarter final. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

On returning to the court, Wozniacki’s usual sharp footwork was missing. After a double fault, she ripped the strapping off her knee and won the next two points and the set. This revival was short-lived as Navarro easily won the second set, and when Wozniacki lost the first game of the third, she declared herself done for the day and the tournament, and shook hands with her opponent.

Not only was top seed Maria Sakkari knocked out in the first round by Lucky Loser Jule Niemeier, but it became apparent that there would be a first time winner of the event when defending champion Kateřina Siniaková gave a walkover to Donna Vekić before their quarter final. Siniaková had defeated Clara Burel and Liudmila Samsonova, both in three sets, then injured her hip in a first round doubles loss with partner Taylor Townsend.

Kateřina Siniaková defeating Liudmila Samsonova. Photo: Paul Zimmerman

Anna Blinkova already holds a place in tennis history. Together with Elena Rybakina, she played the longest tiebreak ever – women’s or men’s – in a grand slam, at the Australian Open this year. It lasted for 31 minutes and Blinkova won 22-20. She had saved the six match points against her and converted her tenth match point.

It came to mind during the 73 minute third set of the quarter final between Blinkova and Viktoriya Tomova at the Bad Homburg Open. Aside from the brilliance of their shot-making, the sustained suspense elevated it over the other excellent tennis played in the event.

Even the first two sets with the simple scoreline of 2-6 6-1 featured 10 break points fluctuating between the players and then the third set contained 11.

In the tiebreak, Tomova saved five match points. It ended at 11-9 to Tomova when Blinkova tired just a fraction.

It was more remarkable for the fact that Blinkova had already played a set and a half that day – the remainder of her rain-suspended second round match against 4th seed Beatriz Haddad Maia – and instead of having a two-match breather in between that and her quarter final, had only one match in between due to the cancellation of Siniaková’s quarter final.

Anna Blinkova during her quarter final. Photo: Paul Zimmerman

So, having come through qualifying, Tomova made the semis to meet unseeded Donna Vekić, the beneficiary of the walkover from Siniaková.

As the Rumanian fans waved their flags in support of Tomova, their player had a difficult first set, missing opportunities to break serve, while serving herself at only around 30% for both first and second serve. Unsurprisingly, she lost the first set to love.

Viktoriya Tomova playing Linda Noskova on Court 1. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

She won her first game to go 1-2 in the second set.With the urging of her fans, she lifted and progressed to 6-6. In the tiebreak, Tomova led 4-2 but ultimately, she hit long to gift it 8-6, and the match, to Vekić on her 28th birthday. The crowd sang Happy Birthday and she received flowers and a magnum of sparkling wine from the tournament. She later said she would not be partaking of the wine to celebrate her birthday; “I’ll wait until after Wimbledon”.

Following her victory over Kerber, Shnaider defeated Australian Open semi finalist Dayana Yastremska 2 & 2; former world No. 2 Paula Badosa – who described Shnaider’s playing style as “aggressive and smart” – also in straight sets; then last year’s semi finalist Navarro in a tougher match, 7-5 2-6 6-3.

So it came to be that Vekić and Shnaider would fight for title.

Donna Vekić playing in the Bad Homburg final. Photo: Paul Zimmerman

Although three of Vekić’s titles have been on hardcourt, she won on the lawn courts of Nottingham in 2017. She has also been a finalist on the grass of Birmingham and Berlin.

In Bad Homburg she said, “Grass is really my favourite surface. But I still didn’t expect to be in the final here.”

Twenty year old Shnaider won her first title, on hardcourt, in Thailand in February. The day of the final was extremely humid, proving she could manage severe conditions. The final of this year’s Bad Homburg Open was played in unusually humid conditions for the region due to an extreme weather event that was due later that day.

Shnaider agreed that previous experience had assisted her in Bad Homburg. “When I won Thailand I was very happy to win a title in those conditions. I feel like I play much better when it’s a bit cooler and not hot and humid but we have to get used to different conditions at every tournament. Now [in Bad Homburg] it was very hot and humid and it was very tough physically. I’m very happy to win in not my [preferred] weather conditions”.

Diana Shnaider playing Paula Badosa. Photo: Paul Zimmerman

The final of the doubles was brought forward by six hours to the morning after the German Weather Service predicted massive thunderstorms, violent squalls and heavy rain that evening.

The top seeded team of Nicole Melichar-Martinez and Ellen Perez (USA/Australia) were up 4-2 in the first set before Hao-Ching Chan and Veronika Kudermetova (Taiwan/Russia) won the next four games to take it. When the American/Australian team won the second set 6-3, a match tiebreak was necessary to determine the champions, which they won 10-8.

Ellen Perez and Nicole Melichar-Martinez after taking the doubles title. Photo: Paul Zimmerman

The singles final was a tale of break points taken and missed. Shnaider explained how she pushed through it, “You just need to run for every ball and stay focussed on every ball, try to return one more ball. I need to fight, because this one ball can make a difference in the whole game.”

In the first set alone, Vekić had nine break points but was unable to convert any. Over the course of the match, she had 13 and broke only three times, whereas Shnaider broke four times from only six chances.

But that was not the whole story of the match as there was outstanding all-court play from both players. It was mainly Shnaider’s serving that gave her the advantage. She sent down nine aces, often at crucial times, and made just one double fault.

Shnaider entered the tournament with her highest ranking of 47 and the Bad Homburg title will see her rise to 30.

For the tournament itself, which promises and delivers “Wimbledon flair”, the future continues to look bright. The licence for the tournament is actually owned by Wimbledon, which gives the event extra stability, and the contract with the venue of the Bad Homburg Tennis Club has been extended to at least 2029.

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