The Hamburg European Open returned this year with both ATP 500 and WTA 250 events at the renovated Rothenbaum Stadium.
Rothenbaum, which dates back to 1892, has increased its seating capacity and disability access. The upgrades included mechanical improvements to its distinctive retractable roof, originally installed in 1996. The roof is a flexible membrane which, when not needed, rests off-centre to minimise the casting of shadows, dangling like a chandelier.
The event’s organisers brought the WTA event back to Hamburg by taking over the tournament licence that was previously used for the Baltic Open in Jurmala, Latvia. That tournament was held only once, in July 2019.
The return to Hamburg means that along with Stuttgart, Bad Homburg, Berlin, Karlsruhe and Cologne — the debut of which has been held over from May to 2022 — there are now six annual WTA events in Germany.
The last time the women played in Hamburg, in 2002, Kim Clijsters beat Venus Williams in the final.
This year the women’s section of the Hamburg European Open coincided with the second week of Wimbledon. The top four seeds, three of whom had played at Wimbledon, were given byes in the first round.
The German government exempted players travelling from England from its quarantine requirements, as in 2020 the tournament ran safely with crowds.
The crowd numbers this year were limited to 3,500 per day in a stadium with 10,000 capacity. The negotiations between the government and the tournament meant that tickets could only go on sale three weeks before the event.
The tournament enlisted six-time WTA title winner Andrea Petkovic as the tournament ambassador and granted her a wildcard. Her ambassadorial duties, which stretched into the men’s event the following week, included taking part in the draws and match scheduling, as well as charming sponsors and offering ideas on the further development of the tournament.
Petkovic, fellow wildcard Jule Niemeier and qualifier Elena-Gabriela “Gabi” Ruse became the stories of the tournament this year.
Petkovic had a close first round match against Anna-Lena Friedsam, winning 6-4 7-5. She claimed both her muscles and her outfit suffered from the change from grass to clay. “I brought the Wimbledon white. Later I figured out that it was not the smartest thing to do.”
In the second round, Petkovic upset number 2 seed Yulia Putintseva 6-2 1-6 6-4. Petkovic became unsettled when rain closed the roof after the second set but recovered to win the 130 minute match. It was the first time this year that Petkovic had won consecutive matches and she threw her racquet high in the air to celebrate.
Petkovic then backed up that victory with a quarter final win over Belgian Ysaline Bonaventure. Ranked 128, two places above Petkovic, Bonaventure had won two three-setters against Astra Sharma and Bernarda Pera. After facing break points in her first two service games, Petkovic ran away with the first set 6-2.
In the second, Bonaventure started pounding groundstroke winners all over the court. She served for the set at 5-4 but some clever play by Petkovic levelled the score. Bonaventure had Ad on the next game but Petkovic held on. Soon the German had two match points and clinched the second.
Jule Niemeier came to Hamburg with good results on clay this year, having won an ITF Pro event in Prague in May. Later that month, she achieved her best ever result, making the semis in the Strasbourg WTA 250 where she lost 5-7 6-3 4-6 to eventual Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova. Her ranking then rose to its highest at 167.
In Hamburg, she put aside the disappointment of losing the final round of qualifying at Wimbledon 7-9 in the third. She knocked out the number 8 seed Caroline Garcia in two hard fought sets lasting for one hour and 41 minutes.
After the match she said, “It’s very special to play here at home in Germany against a strong opponent. I want to be one of the best players in the world. Hopefully I can be one of them pretty soon, but it is a long way to go. I will keep working hard and the results will come.”
Next for Niemeier was her first WTA level meeting with Hamburg local Tamara Korpatsch. Niemeier’s major strength is her serve and that she could not produce it consistently forced her to struggle for three hours to win.
In the second set she served twice for the match but was broken. Niemeier went down 2-4 in the tiebreak but fought back to 5-4 only to have Korpatsch revive and take it 7-5. Despite making 64 unforced errors for the match, Niemeier’s resolve saw her win 6-2 6-7 6-3.
From one day to the next, Niemeier must have partaken of a serving elixir. In her first set against the 3rd seed and 2021 Roland Garros semi-finalist Tamara Zidansek, she won a remarkable 100% of first serve points and 75% of second serve points.
Combining her serving success with seemingly effortless groundstroke winners off both sides, she took the set against a frustrated opponent 6-2. Zidansek lifted in the second set but Niemeier held on for 6-4.
Niemeier met Petkovic in the semis, which happened to be played at same time as the Wimbledon women’s final. They had trained together several years ago but had only played once; in this year’s Strasbourg qualifying where Niemeier won 6-3 6-7 6-3.
In Hamburg, Niemeier failed to convert three set points at 5-4 in the first set and then faced a break point. A backhand into the net saw her lose her serve for 5-5. When Petkovic held, Niemeier served to stay in the set. The ensuing tiebreak went to Petkovic 7-4.
Petkovic was so chilled at the sit down that she sang along to the DJ. Too chilled, perhaps, as she slipped behind in the second set and lost it 4-6. But she came back to win the almost three hour match 7-5 in the third. Both players served 11 double faults but also showed patches of brilliance.
From the first round of qualifying travelling to the final, Gabi Ruse played like she owned the tournament. It was hard to believe she entered with a ranking of 198 in the world. She began the main event with a straight sets win over Swiss 6th seed Jil Teichmann and then defeated German qualifier Anna Zaja 2 and 2.
Ruse’s next two matches really tested her. Firstly, she had to get past 4th seed Danielle Collins. Taking advantage of Collins’s serve problems, Ruse launched volcanic returns and utilised devious drop shots. She won the first set 6-4. Collins reversed her fortune in the second set by serving better and increasing her winners, allowing Ruse only one game.
Collins was annoyed at when, after breaking Ruse to go up 2-1 in the third set, her opponent took a lengthy medical time out for a lower back issue. Eventually, at 4-5, Collins served to stay in the tournament. In the longest game of the match and the most exciting in the event, she saved five match points to draw even.
Despite her efforts, Collins lost 4-6 6-1 5-7. She had won 50.3% of total points. Shaking hands at the net Collins calmly but firmly let Ruse know that she hadn’t appreciated the crucial timing of her injury break.
Top seed Dayana Yastremska awaited Ruse in the semis. The first set score of 6-2 to Yastremska did not reflect the closeness of its 43 minutes.
Yastremska was playing her first tournament of 2021 after a suspension dating back to January was lifted just before Wimbledon. Her lack of match play was not obvious in the first set, but she took a medical break for a left leg injury at its end. Ruse broke her early in the second and after going down 1-4, Yastremska took another medical break. Ruse wrapped the set up 6-1.
Although Ruse couldn’t serve out the match at 5-3, Yastremska gifted her a match point in the next game with consecutive double faults and handed her the match with an errant backhand into the net.
“Yeah, wow, I’m in shock right now,” Ruse said after the match, “I cannot find the words. It’s unbelievable what’s going on in Hamburg. After a long journey of injuries, I can’t believe that I’m back.”
When asked whether she would prefer to play Jule Niemeier or Andrea Petkovic in the final, Ruse deflected the question, saying she was cramping too much to think about it.
So Ruse the qualifier met Petkovic the wildcard in the final. The match-up highlighted the depth of the women’s field.
A decade ago, Petkovic was ranked No. 9 in the world. Now she was 130 and last won a WTA event in 2015. She hadn’t played a final for six years.
Ruse had won six tournaments on the ITF Pro circuit, the last in 2017, but had never been past the quarters before in a WTA event. The final was Ruse’s seventh match in seven days.
The first set was a slogfest. After 50 minutes of play, when Petkovic was leading 5-4, Ruse took medical timeout. When the match resumed, Petkovic had set points before the tiebreak and during it at 6-5, but could not convert. Ruse then had a set point at 7-6. Her shot was called out, but the chair umpire immediately overruled the linesman. After Petkovic challenged his call, the umpire inspected the mark and confirmed the ball was in.
Petkovic became distressed, believing the out call had affected her play on the ball, whereas she had hit the ball before the late out call. She asked for the referee but the umpire’s decision stood, giving Ruse the first set after 75 minutes of play.
By the start of the second set, Petkovic had composed herself. She broke, held and broke again to be up 3-0. Then Ruse broke her and worked her way up to 6-4 and the Championship. After a warm embrace between the players at the net, Ruse stood on court and sobbed.
By making the final, Petkovic cracked the top 100, landing at 97 and by winning Ruse jumped 66 places to arrive at 132.
This reboot of the women’s event in Hamburg provided good news stories and plenty of exciting tennis.
Title photo of Elena-Gabriela Ruse by Valeria Witters