Exuberance finally gave way to experience in the DFS Classic here yesterday. After a week dominated by Maria Sharapova, a 16-year-old who has also worked as a professional model, it was the model professional's day as Magdelena Maleeva beat Shinobu Asagoe, of Japan, 6-1, 6-4 to win her 10th tour title in 20 attempts and the first on grass.
The 28-year-old Bulgarian, the third seed and world No 12, moves on to Eastbourne today carrying a winner's cheque for £16,000 as well as renewed optimism about at least repeating her achievement in reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon in the past two years. Maleeva also had the satisfaction of succeeding where one of her sisters failed, Manuela having lost to Pam Shriver in the 1986 Edgbaston final.
"Obviously I'm a top player and when I have to rise to a challenge, I usually do it," she said. "In the first set I was flawless. You don't often play like that. Shinobu hardly touched the ball, though I made more mistakes in the second and she made it harder."
Like Sharapova, who overcame three seeds but cut a tired figure when losing in three sets to Asagoe in the semi-finals on Saturday, Maleeva knows what it is like to be a teenaged prodigy. She turned professional 14 years ago and rose to fourth in the world before suffering a serious shoulder injury in 1998, but believes she is now playing the best tennis of her life.
"I think I'm a better player than when I had my highest ranking [seven years ago]," she said. "I feel I have a better understanding and more variety in my game. I'm also fitter and can last pretty long matches. I don't get injured any more, either, touch wood."
Maleeva did not rate this her finest success - that came in Moscow last year when she overcame Venus Williams, Amélie Mauresmo and Lindsay Davenport along the way - but winning any tournament is a filip and this victory, she said, "has to be one of the best because it means I've now won on all surfaces."
She swiftly gained ascendancy over the 27-year-old Asagoe, breaking serve in the third game and taking the first set in 23 minutes with a pleasing mix of force and finesse. Maleeva soon led 3-1 in the 42-minute second set, but Asagoe, in her first final, fought back. At 4-3 down, she twice had break point.
The victory that marked Maleeva as something more than a player with potential, came against Martina Navratilova when the great Czech-born player was still ranked third in the world. Now 46, the nine-time Wimbledon singles champion followed her on to centre court in yesterday's heatwave, but failed to claim a 171st doubles title.
In tandem with Australia's Alicia Molik, Navratilova lost 7-5, 6-4 to Els Callens, of Belgium, and Meilen Tu, of the United States. Callens also won last year, coincidentally with Asagoe. She is now a mere 330 career titles behind her senior opponent.
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