Astra-Nominal! Sharma Wins First WTA title

Astra Sharma (photo: MUSC Health Women’s Open/Chris Smith)

CHARLESTON, S.C./WASHINGTON, April 19, 2021 (by Michael Dickens)

The singles final of the MUSC Health Women’s Open on green clay, one that featured multiple cultures and continents, came down to one last set – winner take all. With their eyes on the champion’s prize – a first career WTA tour-level title to the winner – it only seemed fitting that Sunday’s championship match in Charleston would go the distance between No. 1 seed Ons Jabeur of Tunisia and unseeded Astra Sharma of Australia.

With no spectators allowed due to coronavirus health and safety protocols – and just a few bystanders surrounding Althea Gibson Club Court at the LTP-Daniel Island Tennis Center – the final between the World No. 27 Jabeur and 165th-ranked Sharma took on the appearance of a lovely city park gathering, replete with colorful flowers and hanging Spanish moss trees surrounding the show court named in honor of the South Carolina-born Hall of Fame tennis player. Make no mistake, though, both competitors fought for every point, every advantage they could secure.

When it was over after one hour and 55 minutes – an exercise in patience and fitness – it was Sharma, the Singapore-born Australian, who lifted her arms in celebration of winning her very well-deserved first WTA title, with a 2-6, 7-5, 6-1 triumph over Jabeur, ranked 138 spots higher than her. She thanked her collegiate coach at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., Geoff Macdonald, during her victory speech, whom she acknowledged had believed in her since day one. “This is for you,” Sharma said.

After thanking the tournament director, Bob Moran; support staff and sponsors – including the WTA physios who kept patching her up round by round, Sharma said:Thank you to my friends and family all over the world, who have been watching me, my parents who have been waking up at 2 a.m. to follow. I’m just grateful for all of the love and support everyone has shown me these last few days and weeks – and, really, my whole career.”

Sharma’s valedictory speech followed her victory against Jabeur, in a battle of twenty-somethings (Sharma is 25, Jabeur 26) that followed a week in which the teenagers – Clara Tauson (18), Linda Fruhvirtova (15) and Maria Camila Osorio Serrano (19) – came out to play. The victory was Sharma’s first against a Top 20 opponent after two previous losses – she dropped just two sets all tournament against Wang Yafan, No. 8 seed Madison Brengle, Fruhvirtova and Osorio Serrano – and it will lift her ranking by 45 spots to No. 120 when the new WTA rankings are released on Monday.

A couple of key stats that favored Sharma in the end: She won 59 percent of her second-serve points (19 of 32) overall and also won 64 percent of her return points (18 of 28) in the final set. Sharma outpointed Jabeur 90-80.

“I thought Ons played an amazing first set,” Sharma said during her virtual press conference that followed her title victory. “I didn’t know, really, what to do. She was wrong-footing me she was drop-shotting me; she was making me cover a lot of court, and I really couldn’t read what she was doing.”

Sharma continued: “I think in the second set, I managed to get a little sniff here and there, and by the third set, it was hot, humid, and I think I was a little bit more energetic than her and my intensity was still the same. So, I think that was what eventually gave me the lead.”

Indeed, Jabeur was broken in each of her three service games in the final set and the only game she secured was a break of Sharma in the third game. When the Tunisian wasn’t able to consolidate the break, it was Sharma’s title to win – and the Aussie secured the final four games of the match.

“It’s a tough day, a tough loss,” Jabeur told Tennis TourTalk, summing up her feelings in six words. “[Sharma] played good at the right moments. I wasn’t playing my game today. Obviously, if I had to do something differently, it would be to put more balls in the court. It was tough to do today. I made a lot of mistakes that gave her the confidence. She won a lot of important points. She deserved to win.

“For me, if I did a little bit more – and a little bit better – it would have been a different match. I hope a title [for me] will come soon.”

Jabeur finished two weeks in Charleston with an 8-2 win-loss record on the green clay, reaching the semifinals a week ago in the Volvo Car Open and playing for the title in the MUSC Health Women’s Open on Sunday. Her 18 victories is second-most on the WTA tour behind Garbiñe Muguruza’s 21. Although she will head to Europe without a title as she gets ready to play Madrid, Rome and, ultimately, Roland Garros on red clay, Jabeur will leave South Carolina with a new career-best ranking of No. 25 – something she can be proud of achieving.

With Sharma’s first WTA title secured, she became the sixth first-time winner on the WTA tour this season, joining Tauson (Lyon), Sara Sorribes Tormo (Guadalajara), Leylah Fernandez (Monterrey), Osorio Serrano (Bogotá) and Veronika Kudermetova (Charleston Volvo Car Open). It’s the first time on the WTA tour that Sharma has finished the week with a victory and got to lift up the champion’s trophy. Her prize was a sweet grass basket, celebrating a South Carolina handicraft that’s rich in low country history.

When Sharma was asked by a reporter after securing the biggest win of her pro career what it meant to her, she responded: “It means the world. There are so many weeks where you come so close, and it’s rare to end the week on a win.

“Two years ago in Bogotá, when I was so close [against Amanda Anisimova] and then nerves got the better of me, I blew that chance. I felt like this time I was a lot calmer, held my nerves well – especially with Ons playing such high-level tennis in the first set. I thought I did well to just reset in the second and just keep making her coming up with the same shots.

“To come out of this with a win, it’s really unexpected, it’s amazing for me, I have no words. It hasn’t really sunk in that I won, I’m so happy.”

Americans Baptiste and McNally win doubles title

Hailey Baptiste and Caty McNally, both 19 from the United States, won the MUSC Health Women’s Open doubles title. The Americans defeated No. 1 seeds Ellen Perez and Storm Sanders, both from Australia, 6-7 (4), 6-4, 10-6. The title match lasted 95 minutes.

The victory was a first doubles title for Baptiste, who was playing in her first final. McNally improved to 3-0 in WTA doubles finals. Her first two titles were won in 2019, teaming with fellow American Coco Gauff to win at the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., and also in Luxembourg.

What they’re telling Tennis TourTalk

Astra Sharma on the importance of physical conditioning, both in Sunday’s final and throughout her run to her title victory: “It’s extremely important. I think that is the basis of my game. To be athletic, to be dynamic, for one match, two matches, three matches, and I’ve also used it offensively more throughout the tournament. I might not have the straight-up weapons that a player like Ons has, but I do have the speed to close and finish at the net. [Physicality] is super important to me and it showed today to just keep grinding and hustling and making my opponent play high-quality balls over and over again.”