Wuhan, China — Freshly minted world No1 and US Open champion Angelique Kerber returns to the tour this week in Wuhan, where she has been on the receiving end of an outpour of support and praise from her fellow tennis players since she arrived.
“It’s positive energy, that’s a good feeling,” is how Kerber described the reaction she’s been getting from her peers after she claimed a second grand slam of the season in New York two weeks ago, and dethroned Serena Williams, who had been at the top of the rankings for the past three and a half years.
“This is really nice to have the respect of the players,” she added.
At 28, Kerber has managed to tick not one but four boxes all in the span of nine months – win a first major, win an Olympic medal, win a second major and become number one.
She’s made three grand slam finals in 2016, winning the Australian Open, and US Open, and placing runner-up to Williams at Wimbledon.
The German says she is most proud of her mental strength this season, which has allowed her to overcome some powerful opponents and some seemingly insurmountable pressure.
Her consistency and drive have not been lost on her rivals who not only believe Kerber’s success is well-deserved, but that having a new face at the top is a welcome change to the women’s game.
“I think this year, 2016, has been a crazy year for a lot of things that happened. But I’m happy that we have a new face in the world No1, not because I have a preference, but just because I think it’s good sometimes. It’s about time also to refresh a little bit,” said world No3 Garbine Muguruza, who herself had a breakthrough title run at the French Open this season.
“But, yeah, for sure, things are changing. I think last year the winners of grand slams was like Serena, all of them. I think to have variety is good. Better if I’m one of those faces.
“I think Kerber did an amazing year. Very surprised about her. She should be very happy.”
Unlike Muguruza, world No9 Madison Keys, is not surprised by Kerber’s ascension to No1.
The American has lost twice to Kerber this season, at the semi-finals in the Olympics in Rio and in the Miami quarter-finals earlier in the year. Both defeats came in straight sets. Keys is 1-5 overall against Kerber and the pair have had some epic duels in the past.
“So much fun,” joked Keys when asked about her history with Kerber.
“It doesn’t surprise me (that she’s No1). I mean, being on the other side of the net, it’s not surprising in the slightest. Great for her. It’s really cool to see.
“Obviously Serena is Serena. But it’s really cool to see Angie there. I think 100 per cent she’s probably been the most consistent player the entire year.”
Fifth-ranked Simona Halep, who made the Roland Garros final in 2014 and is still in search of a maiden grand slam title, says that watching Kerber rise like that has given her more belief in her own abilities.
“It’s different (that Kerber is now No1. I feel that everything, it’s open now. I feel that everyone has a chance to win a big tournament, to reach the No 1 seed. It’s not easy, of course. You have to work a lot, to give everything you have, to give the best all the time, like Kerber did this year,” said the Romanian.
“She deserves to be there. She worked hard. She played great during the grand slams. That’s the most important thing. Everyone has a chance to reach the top if we believe. And we started to believe more, I think.
Halep added: “I can say that it’s much easier to work, it’s much easier to believe in yourself when you see that Serena is not there anymore, like, winning every tournament, being No1 in the world for years.”
Spanish world No8 Carla Suarez Navarro echoed Halep’s thoughts.
“For me the No1 of Kerber is not a surprise because she was during so many years there. I know her. I know how she works,” she said. “I think she really deserves it.
“It’s good. A new change for tennis, for tennis fans, for us, because we know that we can have door open to be there also. It’s good. I mean, I’m really happy for Angie.”
World No10 Svetlana Kuznetsova, a player who has won two grand slams, five years apart, was asked if it felt different not having Williams at the top.
“It’s hard to say because Serena only depends on Serena and maybe some good or bad luck or whatever. But Angelique is playing amazing, consistency-wise,” said the Russian veteran.
“She played an unbelievable year. Nobody could have predicted this would happen at this stage in her career, so it’s kind of like the second part of her career and nobody did that before and I think it’s great for tennis and it’s a great example for other players.”
Kerber plays her first match in Wuhan on Tuesday against the winner of Monday’s clash between American Coco Vandeweghe and Kristina Mladenovic of France.
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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?