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Zhang's Moment Finally Comes

Zhang's Moment Finally Comes

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

MELBOURNE, Australia – This was a win for the journeywomen. The ones who slog away on tour, always fighting for ranking points and prize money in the shadow, hoping that their day will come. Because as cruel as this sport can be – good results forgotten every Monday, nearly every week punctuated by a loss – your luck can change at any moment. For China’s Zhang Shuai, her moment finally came.

On Tuesday night, Zhang, ranked No.133, walked onto Margaret Court Arena under a cloud. The 26-year-old, who reached a career-high ranking of No.30 in 2014, was 0-14 in main draw matches at the Slams. Across the net from her was the No.2 player in the world in Simona Halep, a back-to-back quarterfinalist here. And to add more stakes to the night, Zhang took the court knowing this very well could be her last appearance at a major.

Less than 80 minutes later, Zhang was in tears as she pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far, beating Halep 6-4, 6-3 to earn her first win at a major.

Three months ago, Zhang was hovering just inside the Top 200. She was struggling to win matches and even qualify for tournaments, dipping back and forth between the WTA and ITF levels.

“Feeling so sad,” Zheng told reporters. “Couldn’t win one match even. Ranking from 30 drop to 200 [in] only few months, so feeling so sad.”

It was then, after the US Open, that she says she considered retirement.

“Before when I have this thinking [about retiring], everybody say, No. C’mon, you’re a great player. You can come back soon. You have to keep going.

“But I feeling sad. I didn’t know how can keep going. But when [they] say, Okay, retire, no problem [and] nobody said, No, I’m feeling no, I want come back. I want [to] try one more time, only one more time, yeah. If no good, I say, Okay, I will try last tournament Australia Open. If Australia Open not good, maybe finish tennis.

“But I never think I can win in the here, win the first round.”

To break her Grand Slam duck, Zhang played as good of a match as she’s played in years. Playing with no pressure and with the support of her coach and family, she rode the support of the crowd and took the match by the reins. Behind a firing forehand that kept Halep on the run all night, Zhang finished the match with 31 winners to 24 unforced errors.

After the match, Zhang said the bigger courts suit her. “Feels more exciting and so many people supporting me watching the match, so feeling more relax. I want to show how good I am.”

“I think wasn’t my good day, but I give her a lot of credit because I think she played really well,” Halep said. “She played without fear and she hit every ball. So she had good rhythm. I think I played a little bit too short in the first set. Then she was dominating me because she felt the ball really well.”

Said Zhang: “I think the last three matches [in qualifying] help me a lot for [confidence]. Especially last round, final round, play against Virginie Razzano. Very tough match. 8-6 in the final set. So give me a lot [confidence] and feeling very good.”

You know a result resonates in the locker room when players puts down their knives and forks to celebrate:

Well done to Shuai& her coach Robert ?? they had a very difficult year last year… But hard work always pay off ??

— Caroline Garcia (@CaroGarcia) January 19, 2016

In preparation for possibly playing her final Australian Open, Zhang convinced her mother and father to come along on the trip. Neither had ever traveled with her. She wanted to give them a glimpse into the life that she leads and the sport she loves.

“This is big-time for me,” Zhang said. “Because I think, Oh, maybe this is last time in Australia Open, so I wanted they coming to maybe see last match in Melbourne.

“I want [them to] come to see the last 20 years what I’m [doing]. This is my life already like 20 years. They never see. So I want [them to have the] feeling [of] what I’m [doing]. So, yeah, this is so lucky my parents coming and I win.”

For now the retirement talk is on hold. These two sets of tennis on a warm Melbourne night have reinvigorated Zhang, filing her with belief that the best is yet to come.

“I’m training hard, more hard than before,” she said. “I didn’t think in two months I can win [against] the top-two player. Feeling like dream coming true, yeah.”


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Williams & Sharapova Kick Off Round 2

Williams & Sharapova Kick Off Round 2

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

A blockbuster second-round match between Agnieszka Radwanska and Eugenie Bouchard highlights the Day 3 schedule down under, but that’s not all we’ll be keeping an eye on.

Wednesday, Day 3
Second Round

[4] Agnieszka Radwanska (POL #4) vs. Eugenie Bouchard (CAN # 37)
Head-to-head: Radwanska leads, 1-0
Key Stat: Radwanska has won 23 of her last 28 matches.

Is Eugenie Bouchard ready to make a play for a return back to the WTA’s elite? We’ll likely have a clearer answer to that question after Wednesday’s tussle with red-hot Agnieszka Radwanska. The Pole has been in rude form thus far in 2016, wining her first six matches without the loss of a set, but she knows she’ll be in for a tough challenge when she faces Bouchard for the second time in her career. The Canadian has already won seven matches in 2016—something it took her until May to do last year—and she played scintillating tennis in taking down Aleksandra Krunic on Day 1. This promises to be a thrilling encounter between two in-form players, and the winner should be well positioned for a run deep into the second week.

Pick: Bouchard in three

[6] Petra Kvitova (CZE # 6) vs. Daria Gavrilova (AUS # 39)
Head-to-head: Kvitova leads, 1-0
Key Stat: Gavrilova served for the match in the pair’s first meeting at Wuhan last year.

Petra Kvitova erased a lot of doubts about her form on Day 1 in Melbourne when she avenged her shock upset in 2014 to Thailand’s Luksika Kumkhum with a routine straight-sets win. But Kvitova is in for another challenge when she squares off against the feisty Daria Gavrilova in round two. Playing under the Aussie flag for the first time at a major, the 21-year-old eased past accomplished veteran Lucie Hradecka in straight sets on Monday. Gavrilova was close to Kvitova in their first tour-level meeting, actually serving for the match, and she hopes to take that experience into Wednesday’s tilt. “I got pretty close,” she told reporters in Melbourne on Monday. “I was serving for it in China. I was up 5-3, and I think I lost in like two minutes the next four games. She hits the ball pretty hard; has a good serve. I’ll have to work very hard and run a lot.”

Pick: Kvitova in three

[5] Maria Sharapova (RUS #5) vs. Aliaksandra Sasnovich (BLR # 105)
Head-to-head: First meeting
Key Stat: Sasnovich has never played a top-10 player before.

Maria Sharapova shook the rust off in style on Monday, firing 11 aces and clocking 28 winners to down Japan’s Nao Hibino in straight sets. The Russian will face a relatively unknown quantity in Belarus’s Sasnovich on Wednesday, but Sharapova knows that if she plays to her potential her chances of advancing are good. “I try not to focus so much on the opponent or the atmosphere and just really focus on myself and try to bring the positives of a good training week, just try to execute that,” she said. Sasnovich, 21, made a run to the Seoul final as a qualifier last season, and while she’s never beaten a player inside the top 30, she’s proven to be tough on big occasions. She won 11 consecutive finals at the Challenger and Futures level between 2011 and 2014.

Pick: Sharapova in two

[1] Serena Williams (USA #1) vs. Hsieh Su-Wei  (TPE # 90)
Head-to-head: First meeting
Key Stat: Hsieh reached the Australian’s second week as a qualifier in 2008, but has only won two matches here since.

21-time major champion Williams came out firing on Monday and quickly found that her opponent, Italy’s Camila Giorgi, was firing back. But the American, who had not competed in a tour-level match since last year’s U.S. Open, proved to be up to the challenge. She kept the hard-hitting Giorgi at bay with her lethal serve, dropping only four first-serve points and facing just one break point, and demonstrated no signs of the injury to her left knee that forced her out of Hopman Cup. Though the crafty, cerebral Hsieh isn’t much of a match on paper for the six-time Australian Open champion, at this point in Williams’ quest for major No. 22, she’s not ready to take anything for granted. “You know, everyone is here to win,” Williams said. “Everyone is here to play their hardest. Yeah, I can’t look past anyone.”

Pick: Serena in two

Around the Grounds: Belinda Bencic will look to advance to the third round in Melbourne for the first time when she meets Hungary’s Timea Babos. Babos, an elite doubles player, appears to be upping her singles game as well. She took out Great Britain’s Heather Watson in three sets on Day 1… Russian Daria Kasatkina is a player on the rise. She knocked off 27th-seeded Anna Karolina Schmiedlova on Monday and has risen more ranking spots than any other player in the top-100 in the last year (from 350 to 69). Kasatkina will square off in a battle of promising 18-year-olds on Wednesday when she meets Croatia’s Ana Konjuh.

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Sharapova Shines In First Match Of 2016

Sharapova Shines In First Match Of 2016

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

MELBOURNE, Australia – Maria Sharapova shone in her first match of the 2016 season, serving up a straight set victory over Japanese up-and-comer Nao Hibino under the lights of Margaret Court Arena.

There were question marks surrounding Sharapova’s health after she withdrew from her only lead-up event in Brisbane due to a left forearm injury suffered in practice, but there were no ill effects on Monday night as the No.5-seeded Russian powered past Hibino in an hour and 13 minutes, 6-1, 6-3.

“It was just nice to get on court and face the opportunity of playing a first match,” Sharapova said afterwards. “No matter how much you train, it’s always different when you walk out onto the court.

“It’s definitely a relief to get that first one out of the way.”

Sharapova was also told she’s Hibino’s idol and that the Japanese has posters of her on her wall.

“She’s got to take those off! It’s time to put her posters up there,” Sharapova said.

“I actually hadn’t heard much about her, and I hadn’t seen too much of her game before I went on the court today. She actually likes the pace and takes the pace quite well. For a first Grand Slam performance I thought she was there till the end. That’s impressive. She never let in, never gave up.

“I mean, experience is priceless for anyone, but especially for someone that’s just starting out in their Grand Slam experience,” Sharapova added. “I’m sure she’ll have a great future ahead of her.”

Sharapova has now won 46 of her last 47 Grand Slam first round matches – her only loss in the first round of a Grand Slam since 2003 came at the hands of Maria Kirilenko at the 2010 Australian Open.

The other Top 8 seeds in action also advanced in straight sets, with No.1 seed Serena Williams edging Camila Giorgi in a tight two-setter, 6-4, 7-5 (read more here), No.4 seed Agnieszka Radwanska outfoxing Christina McHale, 6-2, 6-3 (read more here) and No.6 seed Petra Kvitova overpowering Thai qualifier Luksika Kumkhum, 6-3, 6-1, revenge for losing to her in the same round two years ago.

There were a slew of upsets among the lower seeds, though, most notably No.16 seed Caroline Wozniacki falling to Yulia Putintseva in a thriller, 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-4 (read more about that match here).

Other upsets saw Margarita Gasparyan edge No.17 seed Sara Errani, 1-6, 7-5, 6-1, Elizaveta Kulichkova take out No.22 seed Andrea Petkovic, 7-5, 6-4, Chinese qualifier Wang Qiang outdo No.24 seed Sloane Stephens, 6-3, 6-3, Lauren Davis outlast No.26 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, 1-6, 6-3, 6-4, and Daria Kasatkina dispatch the No.27-seeded Anna Karolina Schmiedlova, 6-3, 6-3.

The night match saw Czech qualifier Kristyna Pliskova send No.25 seed Sam Stosur out, 6-4, 7-6(6).

No.10 seed Carla Suárez Navarro, No.12 seed Belinda Bencic, No.13 seed Roberta Vinci, No.23 seed Svetlana Kuznetsova, No.28 seed Kristina Mladenovic and Eugenie Bouchard all moved through.

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Radwanska Applies The Pressure

Radwanska Applies The Pressure

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

MELBOURNE, Australia – Agnieszka Radwanska kept her Asia-Pacific winning streak going in Melbourne – the World No.4 needed an hour and 20 minutes to dispatch Christina McHale in straight sets and close out the day’s action on Margaret Court Arena.

“The first match is always tough, always tricky, especially with the conditions here every day being so different,” Radwanska said after the win. “I’m just very glad I could win that match in two sets.”

The unseeded American came out of the gates firing off her arsenal of booming groundstrokes, but it was the serve that turned out to be McHale’s downfall. Radwanska broke McHale’s serve seven times in the match – four in the first set and three in the second.

Once the finish line came into view, Radwanska put the pressure on McHale and drew out the errors – 28 to Radwanska’s 14. Radwanska fired off two aces in the final game to close out the match 6-2, 6-3.

“I really feel good here in Australia, very comfortable on the court,” Radwanska said. “I love the crowd, I’m really playing my game and enjoying tennis – I think that’s the most important thing.”

Up next for the reigning WTA Finals champion is either Eugenie Bouchard – whose recent renaissance makes her a tricky second-round opponent – or Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunic, who Radwanska beat earlier in the year en route to her Shenzhen title. Radwanska leads both players 1-0 in their head-to-head series.

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Putintseva Rallies Past Wozniacki

Putintseva Rallies Past Wozniacki

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

MELBOURNE, Australia – The last time Yulia Putintseva played on Hisense Arena, she pushed Agnieszka Radwanska to the brink in a topsy-turvy three-setter back in 2014; on Monday afternoon she went one better against former No.1 Caroline Wozniacki, recovering from a set and break deficit to defeat the Dane, 1-6, 7-6(3), 6-4.

The Kazakh, a former junior finalist at the 2012 Australian Open, recently turned 21, but hadn’t won a WTA main draw match since last summer, and appeared close to another defeat when she fell behind a set and 4-2 to her more experienced opponent.

Yet, Putintseva displayed impressive resolve to turn the tables in a second set tie-break and weathered a final set surge from Wozniacki to serve out the win in just over three hours.

In her on-court interview, the smiling youngster admitted she was dealing with cramps from early in the third set, and played some impressive mind games to keep calm when it came time to complete the upset.

“I tried to keep my emotions inside, and actually imagine I was losing. It’s easier that way.”

Ending the match with a whopping 42 winners, Putintseva also out-aced Wozniacki, hitting two back-to-back in the middle of the second set tie-break while maintaining an impressive 74% first serve percentage.

For Wozniacki, the loss completes a string of progressively disappointing losses in Melbourne; since reaching the semifinals in 2011 – when she had a match point against Li Na – she has ended her tournament one round worse in each successive year, a pattern that was on her mind as early as last year, when she fell in the second round to Victoria Azarenka.

“I think it’s a curse I’ve gotten here,” she said in 2015. “Hopefully, I’m going to break that next year and start going the other way.”

In the same section of the draw as World No.1 Serena Williams, Putintseva not only takes out one of the American’s closest rivals, but she next plays China’s Han Xinyun, who benefitted from the 6-2, 2-1 retirement of Mariana Duque-Mariño.

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Muguruza & Halep Debut On Day 2

Muguruza & Halep Debut On Day 2

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

MELBOURNE, Australia – Simona Halep and Garbiñe Muguruza will open their 2016 Australian Open accounts on Tuesday in Melbourne, as will Venus Williams and a host of other top players. Here’s a rundown of what’s to come.

Tuesday, Day 2
First Round

[3] Garbiñe Muguruza (ESP #3) vs. Anett Kontaveit (EST # 85)
Head-to-head: First meeting
Key Stat: Muguruza owns a 7-3 record at the Aussie Open in three appearances.

What can one of the WTA’s biggest breakout stars of 2015 possibly do for an encore in 2016? We’ll soon find out as the explosive Garbiñe Muguruza readies herself for a first-round encounter with Estonia’s Anett Kontaveit. “For sure I want to do better,” Muguruza told reporters when asked about how she’d like to perform in 2016. “I know this is a very important tournament for us, so it’s where you want to do well.” Though inexperienced, the Spaniard’s first-round opponent has proven to be a tough out at majors already in her young career. Kontaveit won her first career Grand Slam match then rolled all the way to the second week of last year’s U.S. Open, before finally falling to Venus Williams in the round of 16.

Pick: Muguruza in three

[8] Venus Williams (USA # 10) vs. Johanna Konta (GBR # 47)
Head-to-head: Williams Leads 1-0
Key Stat: Konta served for the match against Williams at Wuhan last year, but ended up losing 7-5 in the third.

Venus Williams reached the quarterfinals of both hard court majors in 2015—a feat that she hadn’t accomplished since 2010—and the 35-year-old has experienced a run of form that has landed her the No. 8 seed in Melbourne. So is it high time for the seven-time major champion to defy our expectations once again and wreak some havoc down under? To do that Williams will have to get past rising Brit Johanna Konta. Ranked 98 spots higher in the rankings than she was at this time last year, Konta has grown by leaps and bounds. She upset Garbiñe Muguruza at the U.S. Open last year en route to her first round of 16 at a major, and despite the fact that she’s gone 0-2 thus far in 2016, she comes in with newfound confidence in her game on the big stage.

Pick: Williams in three

[14] Victoria Azarenka (BLR #16) vs. Alison Van Uytvanck (GER# 43)
Head-to-head: First meeting
Key Stat: Van Uytvanck has jumped 66 rankings spots in the last year, rising from 106 to her current perch at 44.

With all the injuries ailing the top five players heading into Melbourne, many have tabbed two-time Australian Open champion Azarenka as a favorite to take the title down under. And why shouldn’t they? For the first time in what feels like eons, Azarenka is in perfect health. And she started the season by ripping through the Brisbane draw, tying the record for fewest games dropped during a title run. Though she’ll face a stern test in rising star Alison Van Uytvanck in the first round, Azarenka isn’t about to let the pressure get to her. “I just feel excited,” Azarenka said. “Not thinking about the chances. As I said, I try to live in the moment. Carpe diem.”

Pick: Azarenka in two

[2] Simona Halep (ROU #2) vs. [Q] Shuai Zhang (CHN # 132)
Halep leads, 1-0
Key Stat: Halep entered 2014 with a 10-14 record at the majors. She’s gone 27-8 at Grand Slams in the last two seasons.

Despite being troubled by left Achilles soreness off and on for the last two weeks, No. 2 seed Halep told reporters over the weekend that she’s in good stead. “I feel good now,” she asserted. “I played many days without pain. So I feel ready to start and hopefully to be healthy till the end.” If that’s the case then Halep could very well make a deep run in Melbourne. The 24-year-old freely admits it is on her to-do list. “I think to win a Grand Slam, I don’t know if it’s going to happen this year, but this is my biggest goal,” she told reporters on Sunday. Halep’s opponent, Shuai Zhang, will certainly have her hands full with the world No. 2. She enters Melbourne with a 0-14 record in Grand Slam main draw matches, having won just two sets.

Pick: Halep in two

Around the Grounds: Still seeking a major breakthrough, 9th-seeded Karolina Pliskova will face the youngest woman in the draw, 17-year-old wild card Kimberly Birrell of Australia… A semifinalist last year in Melbourne, American Madison Keys gets things underway with a battle against Zarina Diyas of Kazakhstan… American Victoria Duval will play her first Grand Slam match since being declared cancer-free last year. She enters on a protected ranking, and will play her first tour-level match since Wimbledon 2014. Her opponent will be 18th-seeded Elina Svitolina.

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Getting To Know: Maria Sakkari

Getting To Know: Maria Sakkari

  • Posted: Jan 01, 1970

MELBOURNE, Australia – Greece’s Maria Sakkari scored her first main draw win at a Slam on Monday, defeating Wang Yafan 6-4, 1-6, 6-3 in her Australian Open debut. Current ranked No.170, the 20-year-old worked her way through qualifying and will now play No.10 seed Carla Suárez Navarro – one of her favorite players – on Wednesday.

Get to know the affable young woman, who has Spartan blood from her father and tennis in her veins from her mother, Angeliki Kanellopoulo, who was once a Top 50 player on the WTA tour.

WTA Insider: How does it feel to get your first main draw win at a Slam?
Sakkari: I’m so excited; I cannot believe it. It’s really tough to get through the qualifying with three tough matches and then a match that you have chances to win and you make it through to the second round and then you have to play against a top player. It’s so exciting.

WTA Insider: You qualified and drew another qualifier. Were you excited about that?
Sakkari: On one side, it’s good. But on the other side, it’s pressure, because you know that you’ll have many chances to win the match, but it’s the same for her. If you control it good and you do what you have to do, I think it’s gonna work.

WTA Insider: Last year, as you looked towards this season, what were your goals?
Sakkari: It’s always tough for everyone at the beginning of the year, because we’re coming from our off-season and it’s tough to get back to the matches and into the mentality. I lost first round in my tournament this year, second round qualies in the second tournament. I was a bit tense, afraid for this tournament, but you know, with your heart and a good mind you can always do well. At the end of the season, I played good, so I was positive for the beginning.

WTA Insider: You spent your off-season in Spain?
Sakkari: I’m in Spain, Barcelona. I didn’t have so much time; I only had two weeks because I finished my tournament in Carlsbad. Then I took a week off to relax a bit and then I went two weeks and a half in Spain for my pre-season, and then I went home for Christmas, and then I came here.

WTA Insider: Your mother is a former WTA player. What is that like, growing up with a mother who was on tour?
Sakkari: When you are like 5, 6, 7, 8, you can’t realize it. I realized my mom was a tennis player when I played my first tournament, because everyone was saying, ‘it’s the daughter of Angeliki,’ and then everyone started talking about me, that I’m her daughter. So then I started realizing who my mom is, because for Greece, it was a pretty big, that time. She made the quarterfinals at the Olympics and then third round of Roland Garros, 43 in the world. We didn’t have anyone until that time, and after her was Daniilidou. I didn’t start playing tennis because of her; this is what everyone thinks.

Maria Sakkari

WTA Insider: How did you start playing tennis?
It was next to my house; the courts were, like, three minutes from my house. I was doing all kinds of sports because I was a sporty kid, and then I liked tennis. I started playing with my grandfather because he was a coach, and it started from there.

WTA Insider: Do you talk to your mom about your career? What’s the best advice she’s given you?
Sakkari: She totally understands every single situation. She never asked me, ‘Why did you lose?’ Many parents say that to their kids. When I win or lose, she’s proud of me, if I’m doing the right thing. She’s always next to me and always supports me. She always says, ‘Enjoy; this is the thing you like to do, so enjoy.’

She’s coming for a few weeks because my coach has family as well, and he cannot always leave his family. I enjoy going around with her.

WTA Insider: What other sports did you play and how did you choose to focus on tennis?
Sakkari: I was doing ballet – that’s not really a sport – but they kicked me out because I wasn’t that good. Then they kicked me out from karate as well, because I was laughing all the time. And then I said I have no choice I have to play tennis because they are kicking me out of everywhere.

WTA Insider: You play Carla Suárez Navarro next. Have you ever practiced with her? How well do you know her?
Sakkari: I admire her because I really like her game; she’s one of my favorite players. I will enjoy the match; you don’t get this chance on the ITF Tour. I will enjoy and do my best.

WTA Insider: Since you train in Spain, is it safe to say your favorite surface is clay?
Sakkari: Everyone thinks it’s clay because I train in Spain, but it’s not clay! I like hard courts.

WTA Insider: What’s your favorite shot?
I think serve because you can hit it as hard as you want, and you have more possibilities to put it in.

WTA Insider: How would you describe your personality?
Sakkari: On court, I think I’m a player, because I’m from Sparta – my dad is from Sparta – so I have the Spartan inside me, and I give my heart and everything until the last point. I’m good fighter, and I run for every single ball. Outside of the court, everyone says I’m smiling all the time, a happy person. That’s the thing: I’m a happy person, and I’m always positive.

Follow Sakkari on Twitter @mariasakkari!

All photos courtesy of Getty Images.

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