Of all the tournaments I attend throughout the year, Wuhan is probably one of the most unique.
From the tournament’s catchy anthem, to the dancing robots and dragons that celebrated its fifth anniversary, to the beautiful venue that keeps developing at an unbelievable pace.
I hadn’t visited this tournament since 2016 and within those two years, the city built a tram that goes all the way up to the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre — which was initially in a relatively remote location but is now accessible via public transport — and a massive outlet mall was opened right in front of the venue. A few players have already been spotted at the shops during their down time.
Wuhan’s slogan is “Different everyday!” and the tournament clearly takes that principle very seriously.
We’ve been having fun with the players these past few days at this Premier 5-level event.
Before her third round loss to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Petra Kvitova brought her A-game to the press conference room, joking with a veteran tour reporter that she was “new” for forgetting to use the microphone then doing it again when the moderator’s walkie went off loudly during proceedings. “He’s new too,” Kvitova said before finishing off her answer to a journalist’s question. The Czech is certainly keeping us all on our toes!
Meanwhile, Daria Kasatkina, only 21 years of age, admits it was “weird” being the more experienced player on the court when she took on 17-year-old Wang Xiyu in the second round and had to save four match points en route to victory. After jokingly mouthing an expletive, Kasatkina said: “I didn’t expect that, so soon. It’s very weird.” They grow up so fast, don’t they?
The affable Russian later said why she’s specifically motivated for her third round against Dominika Cibulkova on Wednesday.
“I’m happy that I’m playing Centre Court again because here the Centre Court is so beautiful and my team are so happy because the chairs are so comfortable, they can really enjoy it. Philippe [Dehaes, my coach] said he almost fell asleep two days ago during the first match. I hope it will not happen again,” she said with a chuckle.
Andy Murray was given a stern test by Chinese wild card Zhang Zhizhen before making it through to the second round of the Shenzhen Open.
Playing his first match since losing in the second round of the US Open last month, Murray started well but was pushed to a deciding set by 340th-ranked wild card Zhang.
Murray had just secured the first break of the third set when Zhang abruptly retired, handing the Scot a 6-3 6-7 (3/6) 4-2 victory. He will face top seed David Goffin in the second round.
This was Zhang’s first tour-level match of the season – although he did reach the quarter-finals in Shenzhen 12 months ago – and Murray was dominant in the early stages, winning five of the first six games.
But from there things became increasingly complicated as he failed to serve out the opening set at the first time of asking and then found himself under concerted pressure in the second.
Murray saved seven break points but Zhang converted his eighth chance to lead 4-2 and had an opportunity to serve out the set. He could not take it but was the better player in the tie-break.
As the match entered a third hour, Murray was in danger of suffering his worst defeat for 13 years, but, after finally breaking the Zhang serve in the sixth game, he was offered a handshake by the Chinese player.
The victory took Murray’s record to six wins from 10 matches since his return from hip surgery, but he will no doubt need to raise his level if he is to beat 11th-ranked Goffin in the next round.
At his post-match press conference, the three-time grand slam champion said: “It’s a really good test for me right now to play against guys who are in and around the top 10. I think he’ll be the highest-ranked player I’ve played since I came back so it’ll be good to see where my game is at.”
Murray announced on Saturday that he will call time on his season after next week’s tournament in Beijing in order to prepare for 2019.
Day three at the Wuhan Open had a flair for the dramatic as clashes went the distance, match points were saved en route to victory, players bowed out with injuries and upsets came in spades.
With 900 points on the line for the champion here at the Optics Valley International Tennis Centre, Wuhan offers huge opportunities for players chasing one of the six remaining qualifying spots at the WTA Finals in Singapore.
An emotional Caroline Garcia could not hold back tears when discussing her 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(4) second round defeat to Czech qualifier Katerina Siniakova on Tuesday, after holding match point in the second set on her own serve.
The Frenchwoman was the defending champion in Wuhan and was evidently crushed y all the missed opportunities she had during the match. The world No. 4 led by a break in the deciding set but ultimately lost a heartbreaker to Siniakova in a gruelling three-hour battle.
“Of course I’m disappointed but I could notice that when I remained calm, I was the one controlling the rallies, and I was the better player on court. My attitude wasn’t good enough and that’s probably why I lost the match and she deserved more to win it than me,” Garcia told French press after the match.
“The same happened in my last few matches. My attitude is better than last year but there’s still a big piece missing.”
Ruing her missed chances, the 24-year-old continued: “I was playing better in the tiebreak of the second set but a few bad choices I made cost me the tiebreak. I need to learn what to do in those moments, I made some wrong choices.
“I just need to be a bit calmer, more stable, not having too many ups and downs emotionally, trying to find some more stability that way. I was serving with a match point and I got nervous and I wasn’t able to close it out.
“In a way the whole year has been complicated for me. I was playing well in the third set, I was coming back all the time, I was very close to make the difference, but always the same feelings, getting so close but not being able to close it out. I’ve been feeling like this the whole year, it’s been complicated for me the whole year. I think I was feeling my best here at this tournament, I was playing well, but I still couldn’t make it.”
World No. 1 Simona Halep, struggling with a back problem she sustained during practice on Sunday, succumbed to familiar foe, the 2016 Wuhan runner-up Dominika Cibulkova 6-0, 7-5 in a second round that ended just before 12:30am. Halep, who received treatment from the physio during the match and also took painkillers, served for the second set but Cibulkova proved too strong. The Slovak is now 5-2 head-to-head against Halep.
“It was tough at the beginning to play because my back was locked. I knew that, we talked together the team, normally I had to retire before but I didn’t want, I don’t like to do that. I just pushed myself to play better and better,” said Halep.
Asked why she felt compelled to play despite the injury, the Romanian said: “Because I like to play if I came here. I like to give everything, and also the last hope and chance. Even like this I was close in the second set. This match just gives me confidence that my level is really good, my level of tennis. I’m not disappointed, I’m just sad that this injury happened from nowhere. But I’m sure it’s going to be fine in a few days.”
Halep said she made a movement while hitting a forehand during a practice set with Petra Kvitova on Sunday that led to her back injury, which is an issue she has dealt with in the past as well.
Meanwhile, sixth-seeded Elina Svitolina was sent packing by Belarusian power-hitter Aryna Sabalenka 6-4, 2-6, 6-1, while freshly-crowned Tokyo champion Karolina Pliskova, the No. 8 seed lost to Chinese wildcard Wang Qiang 6-1, 3-6, 6-3.
Seoul champion, Kiki Bertens, seeded 12, ran out of gas after a later arrival from South Korea, and a rain-delayed opener from the night before, to lose 6-4, 6-2 to Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova.
Another seed to crash out was No. 11 Julia Goerges who was stunned by 19-year-old American qualifier Sofia Kenin 6-3, 2-6, 6-4.
THE GREAT ESCAPE
Russian No. 13 seed Daria Kasatkina saved four match points in a roller coaster affair against 17-year-old local qualifier Wang Xiyu 6-1, 3-6, 7-6(8). Wang, a talented lefty who won the US Open junior title earlier this month, served for the match at 5-4 in the decider, and broke back when down 5-6 to force a tiebreak soon after, but experience ultimately prevailed in the exciting showdown.
“She’s super good. She’s very young and very talented. She has good shots and I think she has a good future in front of her that’s for sure,” Kasatkina said of her teenage opponent.
“Today I just went off the court and asked what the score was in the tiebreak. And that’s it. When you’re in the situation you’re not thinking about these things. Actually when it started to rain, and they stopped, at this moment I started to think and I messed up the beginning of the tiebreak but at the end I came back.”
Asked how she managed to pull off the escape in the end, Kasatkina laughed and said: “I have no idea. I was just playing. Fighting as always. Just a little bit more experience that I have and that’s it. Because I saw she was a little bit shaky when she was serving, and when she had a match point she made a double fault, so I think it was just about the experience.”
Just 21-years-old, Kasatkina is usually the younger opponent in most encounters, but against Wang, she was the veteran in this scenario.
“I didn’t expect that, so soon. It’s very weird,” she said with a chuckle.
0 – sets won by Halep in any of the four hard-court meetings she’s had with Cibulkova.
2 – top-five wins Siniakova has now claimed in her career.
3 – only three of the top-10 seeds have made it to the third round in Wuhan.
7 – top-10 wins earned by Sabalenka since June.
“I’m happy that I’m playing Centre Court again because here the Centre Court is so beautiful and my team are so happy because the chairs are so comfortable, they can really enjoy it. Philippe said he almost fell asleep two days ago during the first match. I hope it will not happen again.”
— Daria Kasatkina has her own reasons for loving the big stage.
“I know that she played lot of three-setters, as well. She’s one of my colleagues.”
— Petra Kvitova found a fellow three-set enthusiast in Aryna Sabalenka.