Reem's Diary: New star is born at WTA Rising Stars in Osaka

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Naomi Osaka won the WTA Rising Stars Invitational.

SINGAPORE — We still have a week ahead of us in Singapore but I think I already experienced the highlight of the WTA Finals thanks to the one and only Naomi Osaka.

The 18-year-old Japanese-Haitian won the WTA Rising Stars Invitational on Sunday by beating French world No35 Caroline Garcia then gave a press conference that was a series of killer one-liners.

Currently ranked No202 in the world, Osaka was completely unfazed by the fact that she beat a player ranked 167 spots higher than her in the WTA rankings and said she wasn’t surprised she defeated Garcia, despite going into the final with a 1-2 record in the round robin stage.

Asked why she thought she would beat the Frenchwoman, Osaka said in a matter-of-fact manner: “This is a recent American term, but I didn’t want to be Meek‑Milled, like back‑to‑back losses.  I don’t like losing to the same person over and or again. So, yeah, sorry if anybody didn’t get that joke.”

Her response warranted a quick visit to the Urban Dictionary website, which reminded me of how old I’m getting.

The WTA Rising Stars was a new concept introduced to the WTA Finals last year where four young prospects – two from Asia and two from rest of the world – are invited to play in Singapore based on fan votes. The scoring format is Fast Four.

Osaka said the whole experience was new to her mainly because she had to dress up and wear heels for the pre-event party and stayed up until 11pm once, which is two hours past her bedtime.

On the dress she wore at the players’ party, Osaka said: “My sister found the dress because she likes looking for stuff and she’s great at finding stuff. It’s usually crazy. I was kind of surprised that it was good looking. No, seriously, she though, she’s kind of is Harajuku style. It’s all over the place.”

I asked Osaka how she felt about the concept of the Rising Stars invitational and whether winning that trophy could somehow give her an extra push forward.

“There is like thoughts and then like things that you can do. So I’m just going to think about it as a thought and not really try to make it affect me that much sort of,” was her cryptic answer, which she followed up with an apology in case I didn’t understand what she was trying to say.

Osaka idolises Venus Williams, who is in Singapore as an alternate, and the teenager had a chance to meet with her on the sidelines of the tournament.

“I wasn’t really talking. I was just kind of creeping her out,” Osaka says of her meeting with Venus.

“But like she’s really nice. The void that I left because I wasn’t opening my mouth, I was just like that,” she added, giving a hilarious face of puffy cheeks and sealed lips.

“She was like ‘talk’ and I was like ‘uh‑huh, yeah, uh‑huh’. I don’t really remember what we talked about because I was really freaked out.”

Asked how much taking part in the invitational has given her a jolt of motivation to come back as a top-eight player for the WTA Finals, Osaka’s response was simple and indicative. She opened her arms wide and said: “This much.”

With a scary forehand and her quirky personality, Osaka is definitely one to watch moving forward.

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Halep romps to opening WTA Finals win over Pennetta

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Halep during her opening win.

SINGAPORE — Simona Halep wouldn’t use the word ‘depressed’ to describe how she felt mid-season after disappointing early exits at Roland Garros and Wimbledon yet she probably wasn’t too far off.

But it was those letdowns that led her to where she is at the moment – ranked No2 in the world (thanks to a semi-final showing at the US Open last month), seeded No1 at the WTA Finals, and a 6-0, 6-3 winner over Flavia Pennetta in her Singapore opener on Sunday.

“After Roland Garros and Wimbledon I said that I lost the year, so I have nothing,” the 24-year-old Romanian confessed.

– WTA FINALS: Halep learning to live with expectations
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“I didn’t have expectations for the second half of the year, and I just came to play relaxed. I just came to find a way to come back. But I didn’t expect to do that good like I did in USA.

“I think (my coach) Darren (Cahill) helped me pushing me to believe in myself. My team was close to me. So everything was in a positive way, and that’s why maybe I’m here and playing good again.

“I had downs in the middle of the year, but I can say that it helped me because now I’m more relaxed. I’m more like focused for what I have to do, not about the result. So I think I improve more in my mentality.”

There appears to be a magical connection between Halep and the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Last year, she beat Serena Williams 6-0, 6-2 in the group stages before losing to the American in the final. And Pennetta could only muster one more game than Williams did in a 70-minute beat-down by Halep.

The Romanian mixed up her shots with sharp angles, deep down-the-line stunners and firing impeccable second serves, choosing to be – in her words – “smart-aggressive” .

In the opening set, Halep dropped just three points on her own serve and broke Pennetta three times to serve the Italian a bagel in 25 minutes.

It was a major contrast to their US Open semi-final which Pennetta won 6-1, 6-3 in under an hour, en route to lifting the title.

“I’m the same Halep but in the good way. There (in New York) was the bad way,” Halep said.

“I feel good here. I feel the court. I feel the game. I have great memories from last year, so I came with confidence. I played I think very solid today.”

Pennetta finally got on the board in the eighth game of the match and did make the second set a bit more competitive, forcing Halep to save two break points early on.

But the Italian was broken in a lengthy eighth game, which Halep took on her fourth chance, and the Red Group affair was quickly over. Halep improved to 3-4 against top-10 opposition in 2015.

“I was not nervous at all. She play I think really consistent. She was playing really well today. Everything was working in the good way,” was Pennetta’s explanation after the rout.

“Maybe I had not too much energy. I didn’t push a lot like always did.

“It’s okay. I mean, she always have a good start here. Last year she beat Serena 6 0, 6 2 in the first match.”

As Pennetta noted: “The Road to Singapore was pretty hard in the last month”.

Here, her road to the semi-finals just got that much harder. 

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Reem's Diary: Singapore set for another smash-hit showdown

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Tennis destination: Singapore has received a thumbs up from players and fans.

There was some understandable scepticism before the first staging of the WTA Finals in Singapore last year.

For a tournament that changes location every few seasons, the year-end championships were coming to South East Asia for the first time and following a successful stint in Istanbul, it was unclear how the event was going to be received in Singapore.

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But from the moment the draw ceremony started it was clear it was going to be a big hit.

The crowds showed up, the organisation was smooth and everyone involved, from the players to the sponsors to the spectators, gave it a thumbs-up.

The early signs of this second edition here have also been positive.

Singapore shares multiple similarities with Dubai in that it is home to a large mix of nationalities and is a popular tourist destination.

Luxury brand malls and fine dining are two of the country’s best features, which explains why the draw ceremony was held, in public, in the centre of the fancy Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands.

Tennis fans and random shoppers alike turned up for the draw and some even got the chance to ask the players some questions directly.

That’s definitely not something you get anywhere else.

A 10-year-old asked Maria Sharapova what flavour of her Sugarpova candy would she create specifically for Singapore.

Unfortunately the world No3 did not have a PG-rated answer and said it would probably be a Singapore Sling, referring to the famous beverage associated with the city. Spoken like a true Russian.

American Bethanie Mattek-Sands, who is in the doubles field playing alongside Lucie Safarova, was asked by another fan how often she changed her hair colour and whether she had any regrets on some of her bolder choices.

“My natural hair colour blonde, I’ve been pink, purple, aqua, blue, green, orange, so that’s six and I’m going back to blonde, so seven. I haven’t regretted any of them, I think my favourite one was when I was blue and green because it was the only time I had like a dual hairdo,” said Mattek-Sands.

All the players were in good spirits leading up to opening day on Sunday which made for a fun All Access Hour on Saturday.

Doubles world No1 Sania Mirza was asked about her husband Shoaib Malik’s recent century-scoring form as he came back to the Pakistan Test action in sensational fashion.

“The biggest difference for us is that he plays a team sport, which has 11 people. I always say to him ‘you can blame each other all the time’,” Mirza said laughing, as she sat next to her partner Martina Hingis. “But it’s tough for me to blame her (Martina). No, I’m just kidding.

“Obviously we try and push each other, me and Shoaib. But it’s great that he’s doing so well.  He came back in the Test team after five years. To make a double century, it was incredible at any time, but at the time he did.

“It’s tough to have two athletes playing at the highest level in their sports, competing. We’re playing in very emotionally charged sports all the time.

“We have some disagreements as well,” she chuckles. “But, no, I’m so happy for him, that he’s doing well. Yeah, it’s been a great year for our family.”

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