Day three at the Wuhan Open had a flair for the dramatic as clashes went the distance, match points were saved en route to victory, players bowed out with injuries and upsets came in spades.
With 900 points on the line for the champion here at the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre, Wuhan offers huge opportunities for players chasing one of the six remaining qualifying spots at the WTA Finals in Singapore.
An emotional Caroline Garcia could not hold back tears when discussing her 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4) second round defeat to Czech qualifier Katerina Siniakova on Tuesday, after holding match point in the second set on her own serve.
The Frenchwoman was the defending champion in Wuhan and was evidently crushed y all the missed opportunities she had during the match. The world No. 4 led by a break in the deciding set but ultimately lost a heartbreaker to Siniakova in a gruelling three-hour battle.
“Of course I’m disappointed but I could notice that when I remained calm, I was the one controlling the rallies, and I was the better player on court. My attitude wasn’t good enough and that’s probably why I lost the match and she deserved more to win it than me,” Garcia told French press after the match.
“The same happened in my last few matches. My attitude is better than last year but there’s still a big piece missing.”
Ruing her missed chances, the 24-year-old continued: “I was playing better in the tiebreak of the second set but a few bad choices I made cost me the tiebreak. I need to learn what to do in those moments, I made some wrong choices.
“I just need to be a bit calmer, more stable, not having too many ups and downs emotionally, trying to find some more stability that way. I was serving with a match point and I got nervous and I wasn’t able to close it out.
“In a way the whole year has been complicated for me. I was playing well in the third set, I was coming back all the time, I was very close to make the difference, but always the same feelings, getting so close but not being able to close it out. I’ve been feeling like this the whole year, it’s been complicated for me the whole year. I think I was feeling my best here at this tournament, I was playing well, but I still couldn’t make it.”
World No. 1 Simona Halep, struggling with a back problem she sustained during practice on Sunday, succumbed to familiar foe, the 2016 Wuhan runner-up Dominika Cibulkova 6-0, 7-5 in a second round that ended just before 12:30am. Halep, who received treatment from the physio during the match and also took painkillers, served for the second set but Cibulkova proved too strong. The Slovak is now 5-2 head-to-head against Halep.
“It was tough at the beginning to play because my back was locked. I knew that, we talked together the team, normally I had to retire before but I didn’t want, I don’t like to do that. I just pushed myself to play better and better,” said Halep.
Asked why she felt compelled to play despite the injury, the Romanian said: “Because I like to play if I came here. I like to give everything, and also the last hope and chance. Even like this I was close in the second set. This match just gives me confidence that my level is really good, my level of tennis. I’m not disappointed, I’m just sad that this injury happened from nowhere. But I’m sure it’s going to be fine in a few days.”
Halep said she made a movement while hitting a forehand during a practice set with Petra Kvitova on Sunday that led to her back injury, which is an issue she has dealt with in the past as well.
Meanwhile, sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina was sent packing by Belarusian power-hitter Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, while freshly-crowned Tokyo champion Karolina Pliskova, the No. 8 seed lost to Chinese wildcard Wang Qiang 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Seoul champion, Kiki Bertens, seeded 12, ran out of gas after a later arrival from South Korea, and a rain-delayed opener from the night before, to lose 6-4, 6-2 to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Another seed to crash out was No. 11 Julia Goerges who was stunned by 19-year-old American qualifier Sofia Kenin 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Russian No. 13 seed Daria Kasatkina saved four match points in a roller coaster affair against 17-year-old local qualifier Wang Xiyu 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(8). Wang, a talented lefty who won the US Open junior title earlier this month, served for the match at 5-4 in the decider, and broke back when down 5-6 to force a tiebreak soon after, but experience ultimately prevailed in the exciting showdown.
“She’s super good. She’s very young and very talented. She has good shots and I think she has a good future in front of her that’s for sure,” Kasatkina said of her teenage opponent.
“Today I just went off the court and asked what the score was in the tiebreak. And that’s it. When you’re in the situation you’re not thinking about these things. Actually when it started to rain, and they stopped, at this moment I started to think and I messed up the beginning of the tiebreak but at the end I came back.”
Asked how she managed to pull off the escape in the end, Kasatkina laughed and said: “I have no idea. I was just playing. Fighting as always. Just a little bit more experience that I have and that’s it. Because I saw she was a little bit shaky when she was serving, and when she had a match point she made a double fault, so I think it was just about the experience.”
Just 21-years-old, Kasatkina is usually the younger opponent in most encounters, but against Wang, she was the veteran in this scenario.
“I didn’t expect that, so soon. It’s very weird,” she said with a chuckle.
0 – sets won by Halep in any of the four hard-court meetings she’s had with Cibulkova.
2 – top-five wins Siniakova has now claimed in her career.
3 – only three of the top-10 seeds have made it to the third round in Wuhan.
7 – top-10 wins earned by Sabalenka since June.
“I’m happy that I’m playing Centre Court again because here the Centre Court is so beautiful and my team are so happy because the chairs are so comfortable, they can really enjoy it. Philippe said he almost fell asleep two days ago during the first match. I hope it will not happen again.”
— Daria Kasatkina has her own reasons for loving the big stage.
“I know that she played lot of three-setters, as well. She’s one of my colleagues.”
— Petra Kvitova found a fellow three-set enthusiast in Aryna Sabalenka.
Anyone following the women’s tour this past summer surely must have come across the force of nature that is Aryna Sabalenka.
The 20-year-old from Belarus was ranked 61 in the world in April. Today she is No. 20 and rapidly rising.
On Tuesday, Sabalenka took out sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina to reach the third round of the Wuhan Open. It was her seventh top-10 win within the last four months.
During that time, Sabalenka reached the final in Eastbourne, the semi-finals in Cincinnati, won her maiden WTA title in New Haven, and made the fourth round at the US Open.
When she’s told she’s beaten seven top-10 opponents since June, the charismatic power-hitter pauses before a giant grin shows up on her face.
“Great summer, yeah,” she told Sport360 in Wuhan on Tuesday.
“It’s really important for me of course. It’s always important to beat top players, especially for yourself, you start to believe in yourself even more after each win. It’s always something special.”
For Sabalenka, it’s all about self belief and her opponents are becoming increasingly aware of how dangerous she can be when she’s feeling confident.
One of her recent top-10 victims, Petra Kvitova, was on the receiving end of a comprehensive Sabalenka beatdown in the US Open third round earlier this month. It’s hard to imagine someone as powerful as Kvitova to get blown off the court by an opponent but that’s precisely what Sabalenka did to her in New York.
“Yeah, it’s a bit incredible,” Kvitova said of the ‘Summer of Sabalenka’.
“I know that she played lot of three-setters, as well. She’s one of my colleagues,” joked Kvitova, who like Sabalenka, tends to find herself battling through deciding sets quite often on tour.
“But yeah, definitely I played her twice this year. I think she improved from Miami when we played, the match before. She’s not making that many unforced errors as she did before.
“I do remember the match from US Open, of course, unfortunately. But I think that she is a bit fearless. Even when she is down, she is just going for it, especially with the serve. It’s her weapon, for sure.
“I think mentally she’s stronger than she was before. Always probably the confidence is the important thing in the tennis. That’s what I think that she has. She just built on it. That’s probably why she’s playing well. She’s confident enough to face great players.”
The Belarusian youngster says the turning point for her was the grass-court event in Eastbourne last June. She defeated a 13th-ranked Julia Goerges, 15th-ranked Elise Mertens and a seventh-ranked Karolina Pliskova en route to the final, before falling to Caroline Wozniacki.
“I needed that to understand that I can beat top-20 players. And then I started to think, ‘Well, I can do this, I have to work more, I have to focus, and now I have to believe in this’. Because before you’re coming on the court against top players and it was like, ‘Okay, I’ll try my best and we will see’, and right now you’re coming on the court like, ‘I can do it and I will do my best’. It’s a big difference I think,” explained Sabalenka.
Her rise has coincided with her teaming up with former ATP player Dmitry Tursunov as a coach. They joined forced before the grass season and the partnership paid dividends right away.
The former world No. 20 has not officially retired from tennis, but he started coaching on the WTA tour, first working with Elena Vesnina before joining the Sabalenka camp.
Asked where she feels Tursunov has helped her game the most, she says: “Well I started to put more balls in. And I started to understand from which position I have to play and not go crazy on the court. Because before I was trying to hit the ball as hard as I can and try to put it on the line and now I understand that this is not the way to win matches.”
Indeed Sabalenka has worked hard on controlling her firepower. She has learnt to choose the right moments to unleash her winning shot and it’s becoming evident that on a good day, she can literally beat anyone.
Tursunov was known to be quite the character as a player. The Russian, who moved to the United States when he was 12, has a witty sense of humour. A quick visit to his bio page on the ATP website reveals this random nugget: “Hobbies include romantic walks on the beach, cuddling and annoying people.”
“The good thing is that he’s serious on the court but he’s funny off it,” said Sabalenka of her coach, whom she describes as the best she’s ever had.
“He’s a really nice guy, he knows when he has to be serious, and when he has to relax, and that’s an important thing in women’s tennis, because normally we’re always crazy and this is the kind of thing that can help us relax and have some fun.”
Sabalenka’s recent ascent has been fast and she admits it wasn’t easy keeping up with it at the start.
“In Montreal, I started from there, it was like, ‘I wasn’t expecting this’. I was just like, ‘Okay, well, it’s good’. And then in Cincinnati I was a little bit in shock. And then I started to understand why it’s happening, and I started to expect it,” she says.
“And probably sometimes in the matches this is a problem because I expect something from myself. But at the moment I’m just trying to focus on the game and trying to show my best for the people.”
She believes it all comes down to putting in the work, from both a tennis and mental perspective.
Sabalenka says she doesn’t set herself any ranking goals because they end being a distraction when she’s on the court. Still, making the second week at the US Open must have ticked an important box for her, despite her fourth-round loss to eventual champion Naomi Osaka.
“She’s so confident with her mind and she knows where she has to win the point or the game and she’s a really good fighter,” said Sabalenka of Osaka.
“She’ll fight no matter what and she’s an aggressive player. I’m not in shock that she made it. Because when I played against her, yes I had some chances against her, which is one thing that made me disappointed after the US Open but on the other hand she’s been at this level longer and she’s like, I would like to say that she’s a top-five player, like she is right now. And I expected this from her.”
Does she see herself achieving something similar herself soon?
“I think I’m close but only if I will be confident with my mind, that’s the main thing,” she says.
With her confidence growing by the day, a major Sabalenka breakthrough could be just around the corner.
Andy Murray is due to play in his penultimate tournament of 2018 at the Shenzhen Open on Tuesday.
The 31-year-old former world number one, now ranked 311 after a lengthy injury spell, is scheduled to face Zhizhen Zhang of China, the world number 340, on Tuesday.
Both players are wildcards for the tournament in southern China and the winner will play top seed David Goffin of Belgium.
There was a British player in action in southern China on Monday, Cameron Norrie progressing in straight sets ahead of wildcard Di Wu of China.
Murray on Saturday used Facebook to say the China Open in Beijing would be his final tournament of the year, with his first appearance in Shenzhen since 2014 the prelude to that. The Scot says he needs a lengthy break to try to find peak condition for 2019.
Murray who has won five and lost four matches in 2018, said on the ATP website: “I’m not quite back to where I’d like to be yet, but kind of improving each week.
.@David__Goffin will try to retain his 🏆 this week at the @ATPShenzhenOpen, where @andy_murray, @StefTsitsipas & others will try to stop him. @fabiofogna leads the way at the @ChengduOpen. What will your 👀 be on?@emirates #ATP Scouting Report ➡️ https://t.co/noKLWrcNDM pic.twitter.com/VLEOVWDJvG— ATP World Tour (@ATPWorldTour) 23 September 2018
“Hopefully, I can play some good tennis and get on a bit of a run.”
Norrie, the British number two and ranked 73rd in the world, won 6-2, 6-2 in one hour 10 minutes against Di.
The 23-year-old is next due to face Croatia’s world number 18 Borna Coric, who received a first-round bye.
Elsewhere, there was disappointment for Johanna Konta as the British number one was beaten in straight sets in the first round of the Wuhan Open.
Konta lost 7-5, 6-4 to Australia’s Ashley Barty, the 16th seed, in one hour 40 minutes.