World No. 1 Ash Barty completed a triumphant return to European clay on Sunday night, rallying from a set down to claim the prestigious Stuttgart Open title.
The Australian star lost the opening set for the third straight match, but a nine-game surge set up a 3-6, 6-0, 6-3 victory over ball-crushing Belarusian Aryna Sabalenka.
Barty still had to fight hard in the final set after Sabalenka twice staged a mini-resurgence, including briefly getting back on serve to reduce her deficit to 2-3.
A day after celebrating her 25th birthday, she immediately broke Sabalenka again, then staved off three more break-back points in an epic seventh game.
Barty needed all her composure and guile to survive Sabalenka’s huge ball striking, which became increasingly unpredictable and produced more unforced errors after the first set.
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The fifth-seeded Belarusian sought off-court treatment after the second set and returned with strapping on her upper right thigh.
Barty’s triumph saw her leapfrog her nearest ranking rival and 2021 Australian Open champion Naomi Osaka to the front of the points race to the year-end WTA Finals, which she won two years ago.
She’s now won three of her six tournaments this year – all Premier-level events, including at Miami and Melbourne – to go with making the Australian Open quarter-finals.
Barty skipped last year’s French Open during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, after winning her maiden grand slam crown at Roland-Garros in 2019, but looks a serious title contender there again.
Her respective quarter-final and semi-final defeats of Karolina Pliskova and Elina Svitolina came after her opponents served for the match.
Barty will also contest the Stuttgart doubles final with her American partner Jennifer Brady against top seeds Desirae Krawczyk and Bethanie Mattek-Sands.