Wuhan, China — It’s not every day you find a player ranked No29 in the world going through the qualifying rounds of a tournament, but that’s what Daria Kasatkina had to do to claim a place in the Wuhan Open main draw.
As a top-30 player, Kasatkina could have gained direct acceptance into the Premier 5 tournament in China. But the 19-year-old, forgot to sign up for the event before the deadline, which meant she had to win two qualifying matches to earn a spot in the main draw, which kicked off on Sunday.
You’d think a Premier 5 event – right under the WTA Finals and Premier Mandatories in terms of status on tour – is something a player would not forget, but Kasatkina can be forgiven considering this is her first full year on tour as a pro.
At the start of 2015, she was ranked 350. Today she is ranked 29 and climbing.
Her rise has been fast and the Russian teenager is still adapting to life on the road.
After nine long months of competing this season, Kasatkina admits she is feeling the effects of the brutal, unforgiving tennis tour.
“I’m feeling it in my body. It’s very difficult, not even physically, mentally it’s very difficult to go from Russia to America then to Brazil, then again America, then Asia, and all this. It’s very difficult really and I have to get used to it,” Kasatkina told Sport360 in Wuhan after beating Pauline Parmentier 6-2, 6-3 in the final round of qualifying on Saturday.
Kasatkina admits that she made a mistake not signing up for the tournament in time, but was still happy to get a couple of matches under her belt and a few extra ranking points.
“My brother usually helps me (with signing up for tournaments) but we both missed this one because there are a lot of tournaments and we just missed the deadline, so it’s okay,” she explains.
Cutest thing I've seen today: Daria Kasatkina's face when she mentions Nadal's loss yesterday. She's a Rafanatic!— Reem Abulleil (@ReemAbulleil) January 20, 2016
“We realised a bit late, in Cincinnati, we were like ‘oh my God, what about Wuhan?’ And thank God Beijing is mandatory and you’re automatically entered because if not, that would have been a problem too.”
Kasatkina started 2016 by beating Venus Williams in the Auckland first round to register the first top-10 victory of her career. She made the third round at the Australian Open, had other big wins over the likes of Karolina Pliskova and Roberta Vinci, made the quarter-finals at the Olympics in Rio and has emerged as a young force to be reckoned with.
But her meteoric surge has come with its challenges.
“It’s getting more difficult because now opponents know who I am so they know how to play against me, what I’m doing. And now I have to maybe surprise them and obviously improve my game and be focused on every opponent and every point because it’s very important,” said Kasatkina.
Post-Rio, where she lost to Madison Keys in the last-eight, Kasatkina lost three matches in a row, at New Haven, Cincinnati and the US Open.
She spent two weeks practicing before flying to Wuhan and she feels she’s put those defeats behind her.
“I’m getting better I think,” she says when asked about how she handles her losses.
“Before when I was just starting to play professionally on the WTA, everything was so new for me, I was coming on court and I was so hungry – I’m still hungry but now it’s getting more difficult to play against good opponents.
“But still I’m enjoying it and practicing, I’m here and it’s unbelievable because two years ago I couldn’t imagine that in two years I would be here.”
Does she feel things have happened rather too quickly for her?
“A little bit yes. It’s just my first year and it was a really good season for me. And for example after a few matches in a row and I am already so pissed, so sad and my coach is telling me ‘Dasha, what is happening? Look you just lost a few matches, please be patient, enjoy, don’t put pressure on yourself!’” she says.
“Dasha, be cool!” is what her coach tends to tell her. And she seems to be taking his advice quite well.
She is not focusing on ranking, even though hers is quite high already, and she’s unsure how much more she’ll be playing in 2016. She’s taking it one tournament at a time but admits that qualifying to Zhuhai – a tournament where the players ranked 9-20 compete in a format similar to the WTA Finals in Singapore – would be a great target for her.
She may not care about the number next to her name, but does she feel like a top-30 player?
“It’s difficult to feel it when you’re in your first year on tour. I’m just playing and I’m trying not to put pressure on myself because if you do this you’ll feel bad,” she says.
Perhaps one of her greatest assets is that she doesn’t take herself too seriously. She has a sense of humour and has no problem making fun of herself.
As the conversation randomly steers towards the subject of karaoke, Kasatkina laughs and says: “I like it but I think the people around me don’t like it. If you want somebody to leave the room, I can take care of that.”
She prefers a cosy dinner with her team, to dressing up and going to a players’ party and her focus is to enjoy her tennis as much as possible. At 11:00am on-site on the first day of a tournament, what is Kasatkina doing? Playing pool with her brother in the players’ lounge.
Kasatkina reflects positively on her season so far and says the Rio Olympics was a special experience.
“I’m really happy that I had this experience when I’m 19, so next time I go there, to Tokyo hopefully, I’ll be really ready for everything,” she said.
Did she get to meet any of her favourite athletes there?
“I saw Usain Bolt once but I didn’t take a picture with him. We were standing with (Elena) Vesnina and (Ekaterina) Makarova and we saw Bolt and we took our phones out and we were just about to… then he was already gone. I saw Pau Gasol and I took a picture with him, because he’s a good friend of Sveta Kuznetsova, so that was cool.”
Asked which achievements she’s most proud of in 2016, she replied: “First was when I beat Venus Williams in Auckland, it was the first tournament, first match of the year, and I was playing against Venus Williams on centre court in Auckland and it was really special for me.
“And then I was playing Serena on Rod Laver Arena third round at the Australian Open. Then quarters of Indian Wells was also really special for me. It was a big run at a big tournament. But I think all this season was special for me.”
It’s not over yet. Who knows, maybe Kasatkina has a few special moments ahead of her in what’s left of 2016?
Mohamed Safwat became the first Egyptian since 1997 to reach a final on the Challenger Tour after he beat Germany’s Jeremy Jahn in the Kenitra semis on Friday.
His 6-1, 6-2 victory over Jahn saw Safwat enter his first career Challenger final in singles and he now has the chance to be Egypt’s first Challenger title winner since Tamer El Sawy triumphed in Bronx 20 years ago.
Safwat is also likely to return to the top-200 when the new rankings come out on Monday. His projected ranking right now is 198 and could be higher should he win Saturday’s final.
The 26-year-old El Mansoura-native won the doubles titles at the Meknes Challenger last week.
In June, he became the first Egyptian to win a match at Wimbledon – in qualifying or main draw – since Ismail El Shafei in 1976. Safwat made it to the final round of Wimbledon qualifying before falling to Tristan Lamasine.
He is determined to enter the top-100 – the only other Egyptian to reach that ranking was El Shafei in the 1970s – and has taken a different approach this season, investing more in traveling to Challenger tournaments despite it keeping him on the road for months at a time, away from his family.
On Saturday, he faces Germany’s Maximilian Marterer for the title in Kenitra.
“It feels great to be in my first Challenger final in my whole career,” Safwat told Sport360 on Friday.
“I’m happy to see all the hard work myself and my team have been putting in finally paying off.
“It just feels great and I’m looking forward to the final.”
Wuhan, China — Serena Williams announced on Friday that ongoing shoulder problems have forced her to withdraw from the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open, where Angelique Kerber has been handed a tough draw.
Williams, who recently told CNN she is “tired of playing unhealthy”, will be skipping the two events in China – Wuhan and Beijing – in hopes to return to action for the WTA Finals in Singapore end of October.
“I am disappointed that I will not be able to compete at the Dongfeng Motor Wuhan Open or the China Open due to continuing issues with my right shoulder,” the second-ranked Williams said in a statement. “I have been practicing and playing but my shoulder is still not fit for tournament play.
“I wish the tournaments great success and I’m sure the fans will enjoy some great tennis. I am focused on getting ready to compete at the WTA Finals in Singapore.”
Williams has played just eight events this year, the fewest she has contested since returning from injury and illness in 2011.
The 34-year-old American lost her No1 ranking to Kerber, who is having a statement 2016 that saw her win the Australian and US Open titles en route to dethroning Williams.
According to Williams’ coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, the No1 ranking is currently not a priority for his charge, and with her missing the China events, it’s unlikely she will be able to recapture it before the end of the year.
Instead, the Frenchman has set a rather ambitious target for Williams, who claimed an Open Era record-tying 22nd grand slam at Wimbledon in July.
“We decided to let go that No 1 spot for the moment. Maybe she’ll get it back but we shouldn’t focus on that – we focus on the grand slams,” Mouratoglou told CNN at his academy launch in Nice.
“I know people are going to be very much focused on the 23rd (grand slam), I’m more focused on the 30th. Why not set up a record that will never be beaten in history?
“I think she can do it.”
The Wuhan draw was revealed on Friday and even in Williams’ absence, Kerber will have her hands full with the path she has been handed, in her first tournament back since winning the US Open title.
The German world No1 has a bye in the first round but then faces the winner of the clash between American big-server Coco Vandeweghe and French shot-maker Kristina Mladenovic.
In the third round, Kerber could face Williams’ Rio Olympics conqueror, Elina Svitolina, 2014 Wuhan champion Petra Kvitova, or tricky Latvian teenager Jelena Ostapenko.
In the quarter-finals, seventh-seeded Carla Suarez Navarro or 11th-seeded Johanna Konta possibly await.
Fourth-seeded Simona Halep and eigth-seeded Madison Keys are potential semi-final opponents for Kerber.
On the opposite side of the draw, No2 seed and last year’s runner-up Garbine Muguruza commences her campaign against either Australian Daria Gavrilova, or ex-world No1 Jelena Jankovic, who is contesting a final today, 500 miles south of Wuhan, in Guangzhou.
Possible road blocks in the third round for Muguruza could be in the form of No15 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova or Czech world No21 Barbora Strycova.
Venus Williams picked up more than half her 2015 point total in last three events of the year (US Open - QF; Wuhan - W; Zhuhai - W).— Jeff Sikes (@JeffSikes) November 10, 2015
US Open runner-up Karolina Pliskova lies in Muguruza’s quarter of the draw while defending champion Venus Williams and No3 seed Agnieszka Radwanska – who could face-off in the quarters – are possible semi-final opponents for the Spaniard.
Venus, who beat Muguruza in the final here last year, opens against Yulia Putintseva or Anastasija Sevastova.
Radwanska has a brutal opener against either 2013 Wimbledon finalist Sabine Lisicki, or tough lefty Ekaterina Makarova.
Caroline Wozniacki, who is enjoying a decent run of results following a season of injuries and a drop in the rankings, was dealt a cruel first round against Australian ex-US Open champion Sam Stosur. It will be their third meeting in 2016 and 12th overall.
Rio 2016 Olympics gold medallist, Monica Puig drew No13 seed Roberta Vinci in the first round.
The first round action in Wuhan commences on Sunday.
Wuhan fact file
Status: Premier 5 event
Edition: Third edition
Former champions: Venus Williams (2015), Petra Kvitova (2014)
Draw: 56 players + 8 byes
Prize money: $2,288,250
Surface: Hard courts
Did you know that?
Wuhan, the capital of the province Hubei, is the hometown of two-time grand slam champion Li Na.