Japanese star Kei Nishikori believes his compatriot Naomi Osaka has the mental strength and character to handle the spotlight thrust upon her after winning back-to-back majors in the space of four months.
Osaka’s Australian Open triumph in January followed her maiden Grand Slam success at the US Open last September. The 21-year-old Japanese became Asia’s first-ever world No. 1 after being ranked outside the top-70 just 12 months earlier.
Her meteoric rise has come with lots of attention, especially in Japan, and Osaka admitted in Dubai, where she lost her opener to Kristina Mladenovic, that the huge public reaction to the news of her coaching split has been tough to deal with.
Nishikori, who is eight years older than Osaka and has been the poster boy for Asian tennis ever since he reached the 2014 US Open final, admits that what she is experiencing is of bigger magnitude compared to what he had to face.
“It’s bit different, I think. It’s much more than me. She’s winning two Grand Slams in a row. Maybe year ago she wasn’t ranked top-10. Suddenly everything changed. She’s No. 1, too. I’ve never been top-three before,” Nishikori told reporters in Dubai, where he is making his tournament debut.
“Everything different. Many pressure, for sure. Being No. 1, winning Grand Slams, that’s something I never had before. It’s a bit different. It’s more than me, I think.
“I’m sure she’s going to adapt. Just need the time. She has great mental, very strong, very calm. She doesn’t get panic too much. I’m sure in time will get used to it.”
Nishikori is the top seed in Dubai this week, where he takes on tricky Frenchman Benoit Paire in the first round. It’s the first time Nishikori has opted to come to the Middle East, and he’ll be looking to keep up the good form he has shown so far this season.
The world No. 6 started his year by winning the title in Brisbane, before making the quarter-finals of the Australian Open and reaching the semis in Rotterdam.
“Well, it was always comfortable to play this week in Acapulco [instead of Dubai]. I used to play Memphis all the time. It was easier for me to play US side,” explained Nishikori on his reasoning behind changing his usual schedule.
“But I chose to play last week in Europe, and Dubai here. I always wanted to come here. Schedule-wise it wasn’t easy. But I chose to come here. Something new. It’s fun. I wanted to play two [ATP] 500s, so I chose to play here.”
Roger Federer assured on Sunday that his decision to play on the clay this season for the first time since 2016 does not mean that he is treating 2019 as his farewell tour.
When the Swiss announced at the Australian Open – following his fourth round exit to Stefanos Tsitsipas – that he has opted to play clay tournaments this spring, speculation immediately arose surrounding the motivation behind Federer’s decision.
Panic struck among his fans, who assumed Federer’s return to the red dirt meant that he wanted to make sure he would play Roland Garros for one last time before he retired.
But the 37-year-old, who is the No. 2 seed at this week’s Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, insists that is not the case.
“No, it’s not. I thought of it, in isolation, do I want to play the clay or not? The answer was yes,” Federer told reporters in Dubai ahead of Monday’s first-round clash against Philipp Kohlschreiber (19:00 local time).
“This doesn’t mean this is my last clay-court season, whatever, or I had to play one more time before I retired. That was not the thinking.
“All I knew is after missing it for two to three years basically, my body was ready, I was ready, my schedule with the family, my schedule with the team was ready to do it again. This is when I opted to say, ‘It will be nice’.
“Instead of taking a big chunk off, I’d rather stay in the rhythm and actually enjoy myself on the clay.”
Federer has not played at the French Open since he lost in the quarter-finals there in 2015. He was injured and withdrew from the Parisian Slam in 2016 and he skipped the clay swing altogether in 2017 and 2018.
“It’s going to be challenging, no doubt about it. I have to take baby steps in the beginning to some extent, but that’s okay,” said Federer, who has already confirmed that he will be playing the Madrid Open prior to Roland Garros this May.
“I think after not playing for two years, also missing the French three years ago because of injury, I think the team understood that I was in the mood to do it again,” he added.
“I did grow up on clay, after all. I felt like my body is strong enough now again to do the surface changes from hard to clay to grass to hard again. In the past I felt different. I felt like it would be nice to go from hard to grass to hard, stay on faster surfaces.”
Federer will be gunning for a 100th career title when he takes to the courts in Dubai this week. He has played just one official tournament so far in 2019 and it ended with him losing in four sets to 20-year-old Tsitsipas, who saved 13/13 break points to end the Swiss’ title defence in Melbourne.
“I still felt like I played okay. It wasn’t like a horrible tournament for me. Played great at the Hopman Cup. I played good actually all matches. I just messed up on some big, big points. I’m not going to change my game because I missed out on some opportunities,” said Federer, reflecting on his Australian Open campaign.
Federer’s route to a possible 100th crown is likely to be a difficult one, with the likes of Fernando Verdasco, Milos Raonic, Karen Khachanov, Tomas Berdych and Borna Coric all in his half of the draw.
The 20-time Grand Slam champion clinched his 99th trophy in Basel last September and lost in the three tournaments he has contested since (Paris Masters, ATP Finals in London, Australian Open).
He is aware of the big milestone that awaits him but is taking a ‘it’ll happen when it happens’ approach to it.
“I think that’s got to be the mindset, that you try your best every match, every week anyway. Things fall into place or they don’t. It’s not because of lack of effort,” said Federer.
“We’ve been talking about 99 titles ever since Basel, every tournament I’ve played. There’s nothing new. Of course, coming to Dubai where I’ve enjoyed a lot of success sort of makes you believe maybe it could happen here. Then again, draw is tough. Haven’t played in a few weeks so you reset everything, get ready for your first round, hope everything is going to click again here in Dubai.
“It’s going to be tough. Look, I hope we can have this conversation in a few days’ time and see what happens.”
History may have repeated itself in Dubai on Saturday but Belinda Bencic is not interested in looking back, with her stunning title run in the Emirates compelling her to feel great about her future.
First on the agenda for the 21-year-old Swiss following her 6-3, 1-6, 6-2 victory over Petra Kvitova in the Dubai final is to go skydiving. It was a pact she made with her fitness trainer Martin Hromkovic that they would jump from a plane after she’d won her first tour-level title since Toronto 2015.
“It’s the first thing we will do in the morning. I’m providing a lot of heart attacks on the court. Now I’m going to provide heart attacks off the court. I mean it very seriously, yeah,” said Bencic with a laugh, looking at Hromkovic and her father and coach Ivan, who were standing at the back of the press conference room.
That run in Canada three and half years ago saw Bencic defeat for top-10 players – including Serena Williams and Simona Halep – to lift the trophy and it put her on everyone’s radar as a teenaged force to be reckoned with on tour.
In Dubai this week, Bencic defeated a quartet of top-10 players, in a row, en route to her title triumph.
Saturday’s final provided a full circle moment for Bencic, who exactly three years ago (on February 22, 2016 to be precise) had risen to No. 7 in the world rankings when she was just 18.
A lower back injury, a left wrist problem that required surgery, and a pre-stress fracture in her foot, derailed her career, and she dropped to as low as 318 in the rankings in September 2017.
On Monday, she will rise to No. 23 in the world thanks to her exploits in Dubai. She saved six match points in a late-night third round against world No. 9 Aryna Sabalenka. She came back from a set down against third-ranked Simona Halep in the quarter-finals. She had two-time defending champion Elina Svitolina serve for the match against her in the semis but turned things around to snap the Ukrainian’s winning streak in Dubai.
Entering the final against Kvitova, Bencic knew she had never taken a set off of the Czech lefty in any of their three previous meetings. In their Australian Open third round last month, Bencic could only muster winning five games against Kvitova.
None of that mattered as Bencic bulldozed through the draw, high on confidence and self-belief.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s incredible. I mean, I still cannot believe it,” she said, glancing at her shiny silver trophy. “So many times I was close from defeat. It’s unbelievable that I ended up winning this.”
Coached by her father Ivan and Martina Hingis’ mother Melanie Molitor in her early career, Bencic parted ways with her father for two years and they only reunited last October. She reached the Luxembourg final in their first tournament back working together and it seems their partnership, along with the fitness work she’s doing with Hromkovic is paying dividends now.
“I expected her to play well but I didn’t know how well, so this was a surprise that she won the tournament. We expected her to make maybe a big win and then we will see, step by step, but that she beat four top-10 players in row is something we didn’t expect,” Ivan told Sport360 after the final.
“I’m happy that she believes now in this, what we have done, like she was a child, like she was a junior, and now she’s coming back in her tennis, with the fitness, the hard work she has done with Martin. So all this together now is the fruit of all of that.”
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Bencic is most pleased with her mental strength throughout the week. She has taken her tally of career top-10 wins to an impressive 17, against just 15 losses against such opposition.
“Of course they are very high-quality players, all of them. I’m so happy about the consistency that I could back up my wins. After playing a tough match, I could mentally win another one. It’s very difficult. Yeah, just very proud of that,” she said.
Bencic admits she feels like she’s the fittest she’s ever been and credits the work she’s put in with Hromkovic over the past year for that.
Ivan believes it was necessary for his daughter to do things her own way for that period when they weren’t working together but is happy she now believes in their reunion.
“I was always with my wife, we are parents. Two years earlier she wanted to make her own decisions and we supported her in that because she has to learn also with experiences, with agents, with other coaches, and now she has these experiences and we’re happy that she decided to come back to her tennis, to the system she had before,” he explained.
For Kvitova, her runner-up trophy felt like the winners’ trophy to her because she came to Dubai so mentally drained and physically struggling, yet managed to fight through three three-setters on her way to the final, and stretched Bencic to a decider before succumbing.
The Czech star, who has made three finals from four tournaments contested so far this year, is looking forward to some much-needed rest before heading to Indian Wells.
“I wasn’t in a great mood, to be honest, at that time,” Kvitova said, referring to the day she did her pre-tournament press in Dubai.
“I was very exhausted, tired, empty. I’m not sure. I do have like this trophy, it’s been weird. I didn’t really expect that. So for me it’s like the first place anyway.
“Tennis was kind of an escape from the other things which happening in my life. It’s been a bit difficult, to be honest, to handle everything. But I’m glad that I can still play tennis. This is big joy.”