Having also won the Nottingham championship just one week earlier, Brazil’s Beatriz Haddad Maia hoisted her second grass court trophy aloft after claiming the Rothesay Classic in Birmingham on Sunday when her opponent, China’s Zhang Shuai, retired at 5-4 in the first set.
We came from a title last week and it wasn’t enough. They [my team] were pushing me, trying to break the limits and be stronger every single day. I wouldn’t have this trophy without them. Nobody knows what we went through the last two years. Beatriz Haddad Maia
Both had come through tough semi-finals earlier on Sunday, after rain had washed out play at the Edgbaston Priory Club on Saturday, Haddad Maia needing a gruelling 2 hours and 14 minutes to see off 2019 Wimbledon champion Simona Halep, 6-3 2-6 6-4, on the Ann Jones Centre Court while, out on Court 1, Zhang eked past another Romanian, Sorana Cirstea, 4-6 6-1 7-6(5), to become the first Chinese woman into the final in Birmingham in the tournament’s 40 year history.
Haddad Maia twice came back against Halep from a break down in the opening set before reeling off 4 games in a row to end the contest, and extend her winning streak to 9 matches.
Halep, who did not defend her Wimbledon title last year because of a calf injury, after the 2020 edition was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, suffered two heavy falls during the first set, and twice received treatment on her right thigh, but she recovered well enough to storm through the second set, with a superb backhand allowing her to break the serve of the left-handed Haddad Maia.
The decider was a closer contest, with both players squandering a break before Haddad Maia edged ahead and into the final.
Zhang, who was also due to play in the Birmingham doubles final alongside Belgian Elise Mertens on Sunday, came from a break down in the final set to edge past Cirstea, who was also 5-4 up in the tiebreak before the Chinese won 3 points on the trot to book her place in the final after the 2 hour 14 minute battle.
Like Zhang, Haddad Maia had an hour and 45 minutes rest before returning to the court for the final where, despite all the tennis she has played in recent weeks, her body was better able to cope than Zhang’s.
In the pair’s second career meeting, Zhang won the first 2 games of the final, and had 3 chances to stretch her lead to 3-0, but Haddad Maia broke back and held on.
The Brazilian broke Zhang again at 3-3 and after the Chinese held her serve from 0-30 down in the 9th game, at 5-4, she consulted medical staff at the sit-down before walking slowly to the net to hug Haddad Maia, signalling her premature retirement from the championship match.
“It was really tough to play after two-and-a-half-hour singles, and also I played already seven matches this week,” said Zhang, referring also to doubles alongside Mertens. “I’m really tired. My body is not working any more. Sorry!”
“I can’t say enough,” Haddad Maia told Zhang on-court. ”You deserve what you had during this week.
“Every single day last week, you were enjoying every day. When we were warming up, we were playing doubles, you were making me feel stronger.
“You showed me, ‘Why not?’ We can have friends on the tour. You’re a huge tennis player and a special person. Tennis is something that passes, but the human side never goes, so congratulations for the person that you are.”
Haddad Maia & Zhang won the doubles title together in Nottingham, but the Brazilian opted out in Birmingham.
The doubles final was not played, however, due to Zhang’s injury, with Ludmila Kichenok & Jelena Ostapenko receiving a walkover win from the top seeds.
So, Haddad Maia had landed the trophy, courtesy Zhang’s retirement due to a back injury, adding the Birmingham title to the one she won in Nottingham a week ago, two grass court titles now to her name.
“It was unfortunate that she could not finish the match,” Haddad Maia added later. “It’s not easy to play two matches in a row with a few hours in between.
“She’s a great player, and a great fighter, and she was returning well, and doing good things. I just tried to give my best, even though I was also very tired.
“I’m playing aggressive and, mentally, I try to be aggressive all the time.
“I’m very happy with the way that I’m playing and, I think, I can improve as well. I feel like I have chances now in Eastbourne and Wimbledon. I just feel great and really happy.”
Haddad Maia has now won her last 10 grass-court matches, but the 26-year-old has yet to get beyond the 3rd round at Wimbledon, although her recent form will leave the Brazilian hopeful of an improved showing when The Championships begin on Monday week.
Meanwhile, Haddad Maia joins Ons Jabeur, who had won the title in Berlin less than an hour earlier, and Iga Swiatek as players to win multiple Hologic WTA Tour titles this year.
She is the first Brazilian to win in Birmingham’s 40-year history, with Gisele Miro producing the best previous result by a player from Brazil by reaching the second round there in 1989.
As a result, Haddad Maia climbs to a career-high ranking of 29 on Monday, meaning she will be seeded for Wimbledon, and she tearfully paid tribute to her team.
In 2020, the 26-year-old was given a 10-month doping ban despite a panel accepting her positive test was the result of a contaminated supplement and that she bore no significant fault.
“We came from a title last week and it wasn’t enough,” Haddad Maia said. “They were pushing me, trying to break the limits and be stronger every single day. I wouldn’t have this trophy without them.
“Nobody knows what we went through the last two years. It was something that I couldn’t explain. One year ago I was playing a final in a [bottom tier] 25K [tournament].
“If I didn’t have this power, this determination, it would be impossible. I’m really happy that I’m here with everybody here watching me play. Everything I passed through in my life just made me feel stronger.”
Comparisons with the legendary Maria Esther Bueno are inevitable as Haddad Maia hits the Top 30, equalling Bueno with the best ranking of a Brazilian in singles, a feat achieved by the three-time Wimbledon singles champion in 1976.
The WTA Rankings were established in 1974, and Bueno made a brief comeback to the WTA Tour, having peaked in the 1960s where she was considered to be the best in the world.
Ranked 83 entering the Australian Open in January, Haddad Maia will be seeded at Wimbledon, probably at 24 because of absentees, when it begins next Monday, and it will be the first time that a Brazilian has appeared as a seed at a Grand Slam since Bueno was among the top 5 favourites to win the 1968 US Open.
On Sunday, after her win, Haddad Maia paid tribute to the great Brazilian, who died 4 years ago at the age of 78.
“She is amazing,” she said. “She is the best female tennis player in the history of Brazil. I’m glad I could have met her and talked. Obviously, I couldn’t see her play, but I watched some videos.
“I still have a tournament before [Wimbledon], Eastbourne, but let’s go step by step,” she added with a wide smile.