WUHAN, CHINA — Naomi Osaka may have withdrawn from the Wuhan Open with a viral illness but she remained the talk of the town here at the tournament as top players of the WTA heaped praise on the recently-crowned US Open champion.
Osaka impressed with both her game and composure in New York to lift her maiden Grand Slam title with victory over Serena Williams in the final.
She dropped a total of 28 games across her seven matches at the US Open, losing just one set to Aryna Sabalenka, and became the first-ever Japanese player win a Grand Slam singles title.
Osaka’s route to major glory is not your typical one. The 20-year-old had never won any title prior to this season, and when she was crowned for the first time, it was at the Premier Mandatory event at Indian Wells in March. She made sure her second success would be even bigger, as she stunned the field at the Open.
She broke serve a whopping 31 times throughout the fortnight in Queens, New York and won 91.5 per cent of her own service games (a 17.8% increase on her season average according to WTA Insider).
“She was extremely impressive,” Madison Keys, who lost to Osaka in the US Open semi-finals, told reporters in Wuhan this week.
“I remember playing her in the match thinking, ‘Okay, I hit a good ball, maybe something short is going to come back’, and it was not. Just I kept thinking like, ‘Okay, there will be a let-up, somewhere I’ll be able to get back in it’. I mean, even any of the break points that I had, I had no shot,” added Keys, who couldn’t convert any of her 13 break points against Osaka in New York.
“I walked away obviously very disappointed, but at the same time to play someone who was playing at that level, I was actually really happy to see her be able to handle the situation of the final so well because I think she deserved it. Then to come and make the final in Tokyo, it was really impressive, but also not surprising.”
After she won the US Open, Osaka was asked about her future goals. She quickly noted that her next tournament was Tokyo and that she hoped she could claim the title there. She fell just one match win short of doing just that.
Unlike others who may have needed some time to adjust to their status as new Grand Slam champions, Osaka kept her run going. She went to Tokyo a week after her success at the Open and extended her winning streak to 10 matches in a row by reaching the final at her home tournament. She ran out of gas at the end, losing in straight sets to Karolina Pliskova, and settled for the runner-up trophy.
She is the first maiden Slam champion to make the final of her next event since Victoria Azarenka won the Australian Open and Doha back-to-back in 2012.
World No. 1 Simona Halep is also not surprised by Osaka’s achievements. While Halep has two wins over Osaka this season (Australian Open fourth round, Rome second round), she only mustered three games against the young Japanese in the semi-finals of Indian Wells. She knows what an in-form Osaka is capable of.
“She was always able to do these things because she’s a very good player. Her mental is strong. Even if she’s young, she has many good things in her mind and also body. She has power. These days is really important,” said Halep of Osaka.
“I think she got the confidence after the great result that she’s done in US Open. Then she just went with the flow. But she deserves that because she worked really hard, and she was close many times. She won Indian Wells, so she was close. It’s good for her.”
Osaka’s dominant display in New York caught Caroline Garcia’s eye. It wasn’t just that Osaka was winning those matches, it’s how she was winning them, said the fourth-ranked Frenchwoman.
“It was a great performance for her, for all the tournament. Like, she killed everyone,” said Garcia.
“It was very impressive matches. Two sets, 2-2, 0-0, 1-1. Against Sabalenka was a fight. I didn’t really see her match and her performance on TV or anything, so I don’t know how she played, but I can only imagine.”
Garcia added: “It’s always funny to see her at the trophy ceremony. Most of the time I look like overexcited, over the moon. She’s like, ‘It’s okay’,” Garcia said with a laugh, mimicking Osaka’s nonchalant look.
“It’s her personality. She’s like this. I’m sure inside it was different. But she still carried on and played great tennis in Tokyo. I think if she’s doing what she’s doing, that’s means she worked hard for it and she deserves it, so it’s great.”
Osaka described her first victory speech when she won Indian Wells as the “worst acceptance speech ever”. It was actually very endearing. She is shy, funny and quirky, and has got more comfortable addressing large crowds which was evident in how gracious she was after winning the US Open – amid difficult circumstances – and how poised she was on all of the American talk shows she appeared on post-victory.
Osaka still maintains that she doesn’t have many friends on tour and that she finds it difficult to approach others, but the locker room is finally getting to learn more about her as her star shines bright.
“I don’t know her [Osaka] very well. I feel like I’m probably more outspoken and louder than she is,” Keys said with a laugh.
“I’m sure she probably hears me, she’s like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t want to talk to her’. I know her from afar. She seems very genuine and sweet and shy and all that.
“I think that she’s definitely made a name for herself. I think her whole personality is really interesting and nice. It’s kind of a breath of fresh air.”
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The Belarusian world No. 20 has rocketed up the rankings this season, starting 2018 at 73, and could rise to as high as 17 in the world if she lifts the title in Wuhan.
Making her tournament debut this week, Sabalenka took out an in-form Dominika Cibulkova 7-5, 6-3 on Thursday to reach her second consecutive semi-final at a Premier 5-level event.
“I didn’t expect this. I’m just came to this tournament for enjoying, just to show my best. Well, it is how it is. I am happy with this,” said Sabalenka, who claimed her first WTA title in New Haven last month.
The 20-year-old, who hired former ATP player Dmitry Tursunov as a coach ahead of the start of the grass season, is thrilled with her progress so far and paid credit to the Russian for helping her hone her power and adjust her game.
“Before I was hitting every ball just as hard as I can. After I started work with Dmitry, he explained, ‘You don’t need to do it all the time. Sometimes it’s only to put three balls in. With your speed, it’s enough’. Well, I think this thing started working with me,” she said on Thursday.
“I was really wanting to change something. I was really open for information. I was really listening to him, try to make it as fast as I can. I think I did it quite fast.”
Sabalenka reached the first final of her career 11 months ago in Tianjin and admits she enjoys playing tournaments in China.
“I like to play in China. I always do well here. I don’t know why. Probably the fried rice make me much stronger on the court,” she said with a laugh.
“Yeah, I like this city. Everyone is open. Everyone is friendly. Yeah, I like the tournament here. I’m always happy to come back in China. I’m always waiting for this part of the season.”
Someone who also knows what it’s like to enjoy success in China is Barty, who is into the semis in Wuhan for a second straight year, thanks to a 6-2, 5-7, 6-4 win over Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova on Thursday. Barty defeated Sabalenka in their sole previous meeting, in the Australian Open first round last January, and it was a close three-set thriller.
“I played against her on Australian Open. It was such a good match. I really waiting for next one. She’s a great player. She’s, like, I would like to say tricky player because she’s playing slice, lobs, with spin. It will be not easy match. Of course, semi-final, who gets easy here?” said Sabalenka of the crafty Aussie, who was the sole seed (from 16 in total) to reach the quarter-finals in Wuhan this week.
Commenting on Sabalenka’s fast rise this year, Barty said: “She’s had a phenomenal season. She really has. It was bound to happen, to be honest. She’s an absolute quality player.”
Here’s a look at some of Sabalenka’s stats entering the Wuhan semi-finals…
5 – semi-finals reached by Sabalenka this season.
7 – top-10 wins Sabalenka has amassed this season, all claimed within the last four months.
18 – wins against just four losses for Sabalenka since losing her qualifying opener in San Jose end of July.
19 – three-set main draw match wins this season for Sabalenka, the most on tour.
23 – aces struck by Sabalenka so far this week in Wuhan, across four matches.
28 – Sabalenka joins Simona Halep at the top of the leaderboard for most hard-court match wins on tour this season with 28.
39 – main draw match wins for Sabalenka this season. Prior to 2018, she only had a total of 12 main draw match wins on tour. Only seven players have posted more tour-level main draw match wins than her this year.
66.1% – Sabalenka’s winning percentage on service points this tournament. She is 59.9% in that category across the season.
74.7% – Sabalenka’s winning percentage in first-serve points this week in Wuhan, the highest among the field. She is 68.2% in that category across the season.
111 – Sabalenka’s ranking 12 months ago.
She may not be the most talked-about player out there but Wang Qiang is having one of the most impressive stretches of tennis these past few months.
The 26-year-old became the first-ever Chinese player to reach the quarter-finals of the Wuhan Open when she defeated Australia’s Daria Gavrilova 7-5, 6-2 on Wednesday.
It’s the latest in a series of firsts for Wang.
In May, she claimed the first top-10 victory of her career at Roland Garros by beating Venus Williams en route to a maiden third round appearance at a Grand Slam. She then lifted her first WTA title in Nanchang in July before making history at the Asian Games in Indonesia, becoming the first player to win multiple gold medals in tennis singles in the history of the competition.
A gold medal at the Asian Games means a huge deal for Chinese athletes and Wang admits that triumph freed her up even more moving forward.
“Being in the Asian Games, I felt more pressure because I’m competing for the country. I have to do my best for each point. I’m not representing myself only, I’m representing the government, my country. But here I feel more at ease. I can be more like myself,” she told reporters in Wuhan on Wednesday.
She followed that up by reaching the third round at the US Open, the semis in Hiroshima earlier this month, then picked up her second career WTA title in Guangzhou last week.
These past couple of days in Wuhan, she claimed another top-10 win, this time over world No. 7 Karolina Pliskova, and extended her winning streak to eight consecutive matches on home soil.
While others can shy away from home pressure, Wang thrives on it.
“The bigger the court, the better she plays,” her coach Peter McNamara told Sport360.
“Throw her in the deep end, she likes to be centre stage, she likes the chance to prove herself, and I love that. For me, that’s the ultimate professional, when you want to be out there on centre stage and show your stuff, not be able to fall apart. And she very rarely falls apart at a major tournament or major court.”
Wang, who takes on Puerto Rican Monica Puig in Thursday’s quarter-finals, has looked incredibly comfortable here in Wuhan both on the court and off it. Addressing a jam-packed press conference room after her win over Gavrilova, the Tianjin-native told local press how much she loved competing in front of the home crowd.
“I’m really happy to be competing in China, getting a lot of support from fans. Also I love Chinese food, this is really important to me,” she said.
“When I was very little, I trained in Wuhan. I always felt that coming to Wuhan is like coming back home because I have grown up here. Every year I competed in Wuhan in the ITF circuit or WTA events. I’m really happy in Wuhan, in a Premier 5 event, that I can do so well. I will try to do better to provide a better performance for the audience.”
Wuhan is the hometown of the legendary Li Na, Asia’s first singles Grand Slam champion. Her presence is felt everywhere at the tournament, which came to life on the heels of her second Grand Slam title and just after she announced her retirement from tennis.
She inspired an entire nation to get into tennis and the new wave of Chinese players has already shown early signs of arrival when 17-year-old Wang Xiyu won the US Open junior title this month, then held four match points against world No. 13 Daria Kasatkina in the Wuhan second round on Tuesday.
Wang Qiang believes the future is bright for Chinese tennis.
“She is a goal. She’s a role model for many athletes, especially Chinese players. If I can play as well as she did, I will have a very perfect life,” Wang said of Li Na.
“After the emergence of Li Na, I think we are on the rise. You see young players. At this level of tournament, we see great performances. We have many opportunities to win matches. I think in the near future, in international tournaments, we’ll see more Chinese players.”
McNamara, who has been working with Wang for the past three and a half years, echoes his student’s views on the massive influence of Li Na.
“Everyone aspires to be Li Na, great ambassador to Chinese culture, Chinese values, Chinese everything. And just a great sportswoman,” said the Australian coach, who is a three-time doubles Grand Slam champion himself.
“And as a Chinese player, we can all look up to her and take that strength for what she did. Because what she did was really special, against a lot of odds and I think if you think about the chances they have today, the odds aren’t as difficult as they were back then. I look forward to Q [Wang] stepping up.”
McNamara, 63, has a strong connection with Wang, and says he sees himself as her grandfather. He is baffled by the coaching carousel that is always spinning on the WTA tour and can’t see himself jumping ship to coach another player.
“In a way she’s helped me more than I’ve helped her,” he says.
“Just for me to be a better person. Chinese culture brings out the best in some people, and it’s certainly brought the best out of me with her.
“Her English in the beginning was scarce to say the least, and my Chinese was not good. That’s where I mean, that’s why she’s helped me as a person so much. She’s taught me to communicate in not only a verbal way but in an emotional way. Sometimes words are bluff, but emotion and what comes from the heart is pretty important and we have an unbelievable relationship.
“I’m like a grandfather to her. She can’t get rid of me, and the thing is I wouldn’t go to anyone else. Because you’ve got to like the person. I couldn’t go to somebody else, that’s just not on. For me, it’s her.
“My wife says she comes second, and I said ‘no, darling, my wife is first and Wang Qiang is second’. And that’s the way it is.
“As you can see, we have a great relationship. It works. A lot of coaches go from one to the other, I find it very difficult how you can have a great relationship when you go from one to the other. Doesn’t make sense when last week you coached this one, this week you’re coaching that one, and they’re playing against each other.
“I’d have an emotional breakup, I have to be on Valium or something to get through the match. It just wouldn’t work for me.”
Wang is unsure how she managed to step up the past few months and take her career-high ranking to its current position of 34 in the world.
“I don’t know. Because the beginning of the year I played not so well, just first round, second round, like that, just tell me… I don’t know,” she told me with a laugh.
“I think everything together, but more mental and more believing in myself.”
Wang Qiang since the start of RG:
– 1st Top 10 win (d Venus 1R RG)
– 1st 3R Slam (RG)
– 1st title (Nanchang)
– 2nd 3R Slam (USO)
– Asian Games gold medal
– 2nd title (Guangzhou)
– Best career win (d Pliskova 2R Wuhan)
– 1st Chinese player to make QF at #WuhanOpen
– CH ranking
— WTA Insider (@WTA_insider) September 26, 2018
She also credits McNamara for teaching her “how to play tennis, like with the score, at 4-all, 30-all, how to play the point”.
McNamara says it all comes down to professionalism, something he feels Wang lacked in the past.
“I think the most important thing is that she’s changed from being a little bit unprofessional to professional. She couldn’t see it before, it was a bit of a hobby I think playing tennis. But now she realises this is a job, I’m not bad at this,” he explains.
“Last year after Wimbledon she went AWOL and didn’t play until National Games and US Open, so she played one tournament in three months. So it’s a little bit unprofessional.
“But also, it’s when you get on the practice court. She gives 100 per cent, it’s pretty easy, you don’t go out there and just muck around, because then you don’t get anything out of it.
“And in the gym, everything she’s doing is far more concentrated and far more professional. It’s a package to be professional, it starts with the morning and finishes with the evening, and in between you have to get it right. Girls like [Simona] Halep, [Caroline] Wozniacki, these girls get it right. They’re consummate professionals and that’s the difference. They’ve got it organised. And she’s starting to get in that mode.”
He added: “You just have to remind her. She needs reminding of what’s important. This is a job, you want to play tennis, this is 24/7, this is a real job. And you only get one shot at it, so you might as well give it the best chance you can, and she’s starting to realise ‘Oh I might as well give it a good bash’. And she’s giving it a good bash.”
Looking ahead, Wang already has her eyes set on higher targets, and doesn’t feel like limiting herself in any way.
“Top-20, top-10? I think the goal has to be a big one so you can [keep going higher],” she said while making beeping sounds and motioning with her hands like an elevator moving up floor by floor.
On Thursday against Puig, she’ll try to keep her ascent going.