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By Erik Gudris/ Sunday, September 29, 2013

 

It was happiness and disappointment in the Malaysian Open finals as Portugal's Joao Sousa came back from match point down versus Julien Benneteau to claim his first ever ATP title.

Photo Credit: AP
 

The Malaysian Open finals featured two surprise finalists both aiming for their maiden ATP singles title. For Joao Sousa of Portugal, who upset top seed David Ferrer earlier in the week, it was his first appearance in a final. No. 5 seed Julien Benneteau of France was no stranger to being in the last round though. This would be his ninth career singles final, but he had yet to lift a trophy in his 13 years on tour.

Would Sunday finally be the day for the 31-year-old veteran? It certainly looked like that way early on in the opening set. Benneteau, who owned the best serving percentage of any man all week, cruised through his early service games. Sousa meanwhile struggled with his own serve. When Benneteau forced a backhand error, the 24-year-old Portuguese found himself trailing 2-4.

Benneteau kept the momentum going with several well-timed volleys up at net to keep Sousa off balance. Benneteau broke Sousa again, this time at love, to take the set 6-2. It seemed that finally Benneteau, after eight tries, would have his day in the winner's circle.

But Sousa didn't go away and stayed level with Benneteau early in the second set. That was thanks in large part to Sousa's go-to weapon, his big topspin forehand, that looks like it was modeled after Rafael Nadal and his own fearsome shot. That certainly proved true at 4-5 when Benneteau held a match point on Sousa's serve.

Up 30-40, Benneteau attacked the net and forced Sousa to come up with a winning passing shot. Sousa did just that by ripping a huge down the line forehand winner. It was that shot that not only proved to be a game changer, but a match changer as well. Sousa held and then broke a rattled-looking Benneteau for the first time all afternoon to go up 6-5.

With Benneteau appearing to wonder "what if" after holding a match point only minutes ago, a surging Sousa in the next game knocked off a curling forehand winner and then easily served out the set 7-5.

Sousa broke Benneteau to start the third set and was poised to do so again in Benneteau's next service game. But the Frenchman broke out of his moody funk just in time and held serve for 1-2, showing signs that he wasn't done just yet.

As he had done all match, Sousa came up with the answers when pressured in his service games. Holding on to his lead, he faced his biggest test at 4-3. With both men tossing in impressive winners and tight errors, Benneteau would earn a break point but only to net a backhand on the next point in what soon became a nine-minute mini-battle. 

Benneteau, who caressed some beautiful drop volley winners during the game, couldn't scoop one more over on his third and best break point chance. A frustrated Benneteau slapped the net realizing the moment was slipping away. Sousa soon held to edge ahead 5-3.

Serving for the title at 5-4, Sousa would face one more break point. He saved it with yet another forehand winner and eventually set up his own match point. Benneteau won the resulting rally to force deuce, but a big smash from a determined Sousa earned him a second opportunity to close out the win.

After over two hours in an entertaining final, Benneteau hit a final backhand just wide and that sent Sousa falling onto the court as he celebrated the 2-6, 7-5, 6-4 victory.

Sousa not only won his first ATP title, he became the first Portuguese man to win an ATP singles event.

A dejected Benneteau could barely look at his runner's up plate handed to him during trophy ceremony. Though Benneteau said the other day he plans to keep playing for many years, how he bounces back from this heartbreak may determine if he ever gets back to another final round.

But for Sousa, who has been touted as Portugal's best hope in many years, the power and poise he displayed all week proved he could well find himself holding up a few more trophies to go along with this first one claimed in Kuala Lumpur.

Follow Erik Gudris on Twitter @ATNTennis

 

 

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