The fifth edition of the Wuhan Open wrapped up on Saturday with Aryna Sabalenka posting a convincing 6-3, 6-3 victory over Anett Kontaveit in the final to capture her second title of the year and her career.
It was an eventful week in Wuhan but there won’t be any time for players to stop and reflect on it as everyone’s attention swiftly turns to the China Open in Beijing, where main draw play already kicked off on Saturday.
Here are some of the main takeaways from the Wuhan Open and some things to look forward to in Beijing…
Sabalenka’s sensational summer is turning into an awesome autumn as the 20-year-old continues her rapid rise.
This time last year, she was ranked 111 in the world. On Monday, she’ll rise to a career-high No. 16. Her Wuhan title makes her the youngest player to win a Premier 5-level tournament since Belinda Bencic won Toronto as an 18-year-old back in 2015.
Since her opening round loss in San Jose qualifying end of July, Sabalenka has put together a 20-4 win-loss record on tour – a stretch that included her maiden career titles in New Haven and Wuhan.
The Belarusian plays with so much power and aggression, but it’s been properly harnessed ever since she hired Dmitry Tursunov as a coach before the grass season.
She’s claimed seven top-10 scalps since then and is playing at such a high standard that we forget that she’s only 20 years old and hasn’t been competing at this level for so long.
“I think I had a great experience this summer. I played a lot of matches. I didn’t play before that much. Probably with every match I get more confidence on court. That’s why sometimes it looks like I am long time on this level. But inside sometimes I’m like fight with myself,” explained Sabalenka on Saturday.
– 2⃣nd & biggest 🏆of her career
– 4⃣1⃣wins in ’18
– Tour-leading 3⃣0⃣ hard-court wins in ’18
– Career-high ranking 1⃣6⃣(was 111 a year ago)
– Youngest player to win a Premier-5 🏆since Bencic (2015 Toronto @ 18yo).
— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) September 29, 2018
At this point, you can’t help but wonder if Sabalenka can pull off a late charge and qualify for Singapore. She entered Wuhan at 20 in the Race, and is now up to No. 12. She’s just 670 points off the top-eight cut-off, and can close the gap on the leaders with a good run in Beijing. Caroline Garcia won Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back last season to make a surprise appearance in Singapore. Can Sabalenka follow suit?
“Before Wuhan, I was really thinking about Singapore, that I really want to get in there. It’s makes me really nervous. Like, I couldn’t move on the court, I couldn’t do anything,” said Sabalenka.
“Then when I was speaking with my coach, understand that is not the main goal for this year, it’s like not the main goal. Then I start to be more relaxed.
“Now I’m 11 or 10. I don’t know actually. I don’t think about it. If I get in, I will be so happy. If not, what I can do? I just have to come on the court and play.”
She has a bye in the Beijing first round and takes on either Garbine Muguruza or Ekaterina Makarova in round two.
SINGAPORE CONTENDERS MISS OPPORTUNITY
With all top 15 seeds losing before the quarter-finals in Wuhan, the main contenders to secure the six remaining spots in Singapore all walked away from the tournament in the exact same position as they entered it. This means Beijing will prove to be a real decider for many of these players, with 1000 points on the line for the champion.
SOME BIG NAMES FACING SERIOUS QUESTIONS
Caroline Wozniacki hasn’t won back-to-back matches since Eastbourne end of June. The Australian Open champion is No. 5 in the race and is still trying to lock down a spot in Singapore.
Garbine Muguruza hadn’t posted consecutive match wins since her run to the French Open semi-finals in June before she reached the third round in Wuhan last week. She ended up losing to Katerina Siniakova and is just No. 16 in the Race.
Elina Svitolina, who hasn’t been as consistent as she’d like to be since winning Rome in May, had a solid US Open, making the fourth round, but her Asia swing has got off to a tricky start, losing to Sabalenka in her Wuhan opener, and blowing a 6-0, 4-1 lead against Aleksandra Krunic in the first round in Beijing on Saturday. The Ukrainian is No. 6 in the Race to Singapore and could lose her position if others do well at the China Open this week.
FUTURE OF CHINESE TENNIS SEEMS BRIGHT
From Wang Qiang’s stunning few months that saw her win two titles in China, an Asian Games gold, and reach the semis in Wuhan, to Wang Xiyu’s US Open junior success and brave performance in Wuhan (the 17-year-old held four match points against world No. 13 Daria Kasatkina), the future of Chinese tennis looks quite promising. Even the Wuhan tournament itself showed great progress. More fans were in the stands for every session, compared to previous years, and you can tell spectators are getting more knowledgeable about the sport.
OSAKA’S GREAT FORM
US Open champion Naomi Osaka is back in action this week after skipping Wuhan with a viral illness. The young Japanese followed up her run in New York with a final appearance in Tokyo, showing incredible poise amid the pressure that comes with being a new Grand Slam champion. Osaka takes on qualifier Zarina Diyas in her Beijing first round and is keeping things simple as she looks to secure her ticket to Singapore – something she admits she couldn’t imagine would be a possibility at the start of the season.
“After I won Indian Wells, I saw I was on, like, the board, I could possibly make it. I was really excited for that,” added Osaka.
“We know how my grass and my clay court season went, so it sort of slipped my mind again. Yeah, then after I won the US Open, like, I saw that I was really close, and definitely I would want to go. I won the Rising Stars event there before. It definitely holds a lot of special memories. I think if I could go, then I would definitely be very honoured.”
On how she’s kept her level-headed mentality post-US Open, the 20-year-old said: “I’m the type of person that I don’t really stop to think about what I’ve done. I just want to keep doing things. I want to keep pushing myself, especially when I see other people my age doing really great.
“Maybe at the end of this year I’ll think about what I’ve done. But for me right now, I’m focused on this tournament. I know that all the best players in the world are here, so definitely, I don’t know, when I’m around a tournament, I feel like I just focus on winning.”
JABEUR’S BIG TEST
Tunisian world No. 113 Ons Jabeur posted impressive straight-set wins over Monica Puig and Tatjana Maria to qualify for the China Open and will commence her campaign against top seed Simona Halep on Sunday. This will be Jabeur’s first meeting against a reigning world No. 1, and her fourth against a top-five player. She is 1-2 against top-five opposition, with her sole victory coming against Dominika Cibulkova at the French Open last year.
Halep sustained a back injury in Wuhan that troubled her in her opening round loss to Cibulkova and says the pain has not subsided yet.
“It’s much better than that day, but still sore. I try just to do as many as I can treatments because it’s really important. So I feel better. Hopefully tomorrow I will be really good,” Halep told reporters in Beijing on Friday.
— Ons Jabeur (@Ons_Jabeur) September 29, 2018
Omani tennis player Fatma Al Nabhani has accused officials and staff of a $25k ITF tournament at Clermont-Ferrand of racism, claiming they mistreated her during her opening two rounds, as well as throughout the week in off-court incidents.
Al Nabhani, a 27-year-old who is the Gulf region’s first professional tennis player and has a career-high ranking of 362, posted an emotional video on her Instagram page (published above), recounting some of the incidents that happened at the event in France, and reported the situation to the ITF in an email that was shared with Sport360.
“I have been playing tennis since [I was] a little kid and participating in tournaments around the world, started to play in the pro Circuit since 2007,” read the letter.
“I have never faced racism in my life, I know this is a very sensitive topic to speak about but what I faced in Clermont, France was not acceptable.
“Being a Muslim player and from an Arab country I wear leggings under my skirt respecting my religion and feeling comfortable to compete and continue playing tennis.
“The ITF attire rule allows us to play with leggings under the knee length and I have been playing like this for the past 12 years competing in ITF and WTA [events] and I never had an issue with my attire.
“Day 1, first round match against Elsa Jacquemot from France, the French chair umpire before doing the toss looked at me and said you need to remove your leggings. I told him that I won’t remove it and I have been playing like this since 12 years he said then you can’t play. I told him please check with the tournament director before saying anything.
“The tournament director told him rules can allow her to play with leggings under the knee. So the chair umpire asked me to pull my leggings higher two inches so I can play because those two inches for him was a big deal. I pulled my leggings and didn’t say anything and played my match.”
Al Nabhani won the match in three sets but then claims she faced further trouble from a different umpire in her second round against French player Myrtille Georges.
“1. During the whole match, the chair umpire is chatting with my opponent at the changeover in French that I don’t understand and both are laughing,” said Al Nabhani in her report.
“2. Matches are played with no ball kids, whenever there is a ball inside the court I make sure to remove it before the point. My opponent refused to remove anything on her side so when I complained to the chair umpire he said it’s her side and her right, I told him at least speak to her to remove it and let’s be professional the ball is distracting me during the point, he said he can’t so the match goes on.
“7/5 6/5 up my opponent serving, I collected all the balls from the court and gave it to her. She took two balls to serve and the third one she went and pushed the ball at the net in the middle of the court because she knew it annoys me.
“First time I stayed quiet, second time I went to the chair umpire and told him if he can’t speak to her or take a decision please call the supervisor I want to speak to him, he said no I am not going to call the supervisor. I told him I can’t play like this please call him it’s my right to call the supervisor, he said no.
“3. Matches have linesmen. I understand that all chair umpire make mistakes in calls but when all mistakes are against me here is a question mark. The chair umpire during the whole match did so many mistakes against me I can’t even count them, overruling the linesmen only against me. Why???”
Al Nabhani says she had seven match points in the second set and that the chair umpire kept overruling points against her. She alleges that in at least five of the seven match points he made “wrong calls”.
“I went to him and said, ‘Please you need to be fair and you need to focus this is not acceptable’, he gives me a code violation seriously!!!!!” continued Al Nabhani.
“While my opponent keeps swearing in French and saying bad things about me that I understand and also the crowd heard it and he does Nothing !!! Just because I am complaining and asking for my right I get a code violation!!!
“The chair umpire was against me since the beginning of the match and I didn’t have the right to complain to anyone not even call the supervisor to ask him to take action either for him to speak to my opponent or watch the match or add extra linesmen or do something… it’s my simple right.”
Al Nabhani decided to walk away from the match midway through the third set because she “couldn’t take it anymore”.
“Whatever I am going to do the chair umpire was taking one side only and that’s against me. All players playing at the tournament saw the match and what happened, and everyone was surprised of the chair umpire’s actions.”
Al Nabhani also noted off-court incidents in interactions with tournament staff that made her feel there was bias against her.
The ITF has yet to respond to Al Nabhani’s email, but have informed Sport360 that the team overseeing the pro circuits and $25ks are looking into the matter.
They also told Sport360 the following in a statement: “The ITF takes any allegation of racism very seriously. In accordance with our regulations we will conduct an investigation into the matter, gathering information from all relevant parties. We will respond to the player and proceed with the matter promptly.”
In her video on Instagram (posted above), Al Nabhani referred to the umpire’s conduct, saying: “The why I was treated by him, the way I was treated by some staff in the tournament, the way I was treated the match before, why? Just because I’m Muslim, just because my mum is wearing hijab, just because I’m Arab? Well I’m Muslim, I’m proud of it, I’m Arab, I’m proud of it, I’ll stand for myself and I’ll stand for all the other players. We don’t get treated this way.”
Georges, and another player who reportedly witnessed the second-round match, have been contacted by Sport360 for comment but have not responded yet.
Serena Williams appears to have called time on her season following her meltdown at the US Open after being left out of the China Open draw on Friday.
Williams’ name, along with sister Venus, did not appear on a list of 64 players ahead of the start of the tournament in Beijing.
It comes less than three weeks after the tempestuous US Open final, where Williams accused the umpire of lying and sexism in an angry and ugly rant during her 6-2, 6-4 defeat to Japan’s Naomi Osaka.
The 23-time Grand Slam singles champion later said she wanted to “move on” from the incident, but maintained that women players could not get away with “even half of what a guy can do”.
“Right now we are not, as it’s proven, in that same position,” the 37-year-old told Australia’s Channel Ten.
“But that’s neither here nor there. I’m just trying most of all to recover from that and move on.”
The episode polarised tennis with many expressing sympathy for the US icon, while others said her behaviour was out of line.
Osaka was in tears during the victory ceremony for her first Grand Slam win as boos rang out from the New York crowd, prompting Williams to call for calm.
“We cannot measure ourselves by what we think we should also be able to get away with,” Czech-born American Martina Navratilova wrote in the New York Times.
“In fact, this is the sort of behaviour that no-one should be engaging in on the court.”
Reports from America said Williams’ season is now over, which would make it the fourth year in a row she has curtailed her playing commitments.
Last year it was due to her pregnancy, while in 2016 she called it quits after the US Open citing a shoulder injury. In 2015 she took a break after narrowly failing to win all four majors in the same year, following a shattering defeat in New York to Italy’s Roberta Vinci.
The biggest event left on the 2018 calendar is next month’s elite, eight-player WTA Finals in Singapore. Williams is currently 11th on the Race to Singapore rankings.