Saturday, August 3, 2019

Crafty Zheng, powerful Sabalenka reach San Jose final

   SAN JOSE, Calif. – With her crafty game, Zheng Saisai is quietly making a name for herself in Northern California.
   The unseeded Zheng reached her first Premier Level singles final today, beating seventh seed and 2018 runner-up Maria Sakkari 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the second annual Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic at San Jose State.
   Zheng, 25, of China also played in the doubles semifinals. Top-seeded Nicole Melichar, a Czech-born American, and Kveta Peschke, a 44-year-old Czech, downed the unseeded Zheng and 18-year-old Liang En-Shuo of Taiwan 6-4, 4-6 [10-3]. Peschke won last year's title with Latisha Chan of Taiwan.
   Zheng will play second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus on Sunday at 4 p.m. (Tennis Channel). The 10th-ranked Sabalenka, a sturdy 5-foot-11 (1.82 meters), overpowered fifth-seeded Donna Vekic, a slender 5-foot-10 (1.79-meter) Croat, 6-4, 6-3 at night.
   "I just hit the ball as hard as I could, and everything went in," the 21-year-old Sabalenka, who lost in the first round of qualifying last year in San Jose, said with a laugh.
   Zheng defeated Sabalenka 7-5, 6-3 in the first round of a $60,000 tournament in Zhuhai, China, in March 2017 in their only meeting.
   Sabalenka, who seeks her fourth career WTA singles title, is coached by former top-20 player Dmitry Tursunov, a Moscow native who moved alone to the San Francisco Bay Area at 12 to train and was based in the Sacramento area for most of his professional career.
   "He knows me really well," Sabalenka said of her 36-year-old mentor. "Before I say something, he actually knows what I'm going to say. That's amazing. I think he was the same as me when he was playing – same emotions, same problems – so he knows how to help me."
   Zheng is playing in the Bay Area for the first time since 2016, when she lost to eventual champion Johanna Konta in the quarterfinals of the Bank of the West Classic at nearby Stanford. Zheng won the doubles title there in 2015 with compatriot Xu Yifan.
    Mixing up her shots and playing tremendous defense, Zheng wore down the hard-hitting Sakkari in 85-degree (29.4 Celsius) heat that felt 20 degrees warmer. In fact, a woozy ballgirl had to be helped off the court late in the first set.
   Most of the modest crowd favored Sakkari. The 24-year-old Greek is known as "The True Spartan" at the home of the San Jose State Spartans.
   "I played really, really bad for the whole match," lamented the chiseled Sakkari, who fell to 1-2 against Zheng in their first match since 2016. "I was not playing even my minimum level. She has a tricky game, which played a huge role in the match. My level was pretty poor today to win that match after coming from a win like that yesterday. Maybe I was a little bit mentally fatigued after coming back yesterday from a set and 5-2 down."
   Sakkari stormed back from a 6-1, 5-2 deficit and saved four match points to shock top-seeded Elina Svitolina in a three-set match that lasted 2 hours, 32 minutes on Friday afternoon. Zheng needed 20 more minutes to outlast 17-year-old U.S. phenom Amanda Anisimova in the featured night match.
   "Today's match was quite different than yesterday's," Zheng said in an on-court interview. "(Sakkari) had much more spin, so I had to adapt to her game. She was really aggressive on her forehand, which gave me a lot of trouble, but I hung in there."
   Zheng's career has been slowed by injuries. After coming to San Jose on a four-match losing streak, she will improve from No. 55 to at least No. 42, four spots below her career high at the end of last year.
   Zheng frustrated Sakkari with "slice, lobs, drop shots," Sakkari said. "She's not one of the nicest players to play – tennis-wise ... she's a nice girl. You don't find this kind of player playing loopy balls at this level. Her ball has no pace. We're used to bang, bang, bang, so it's quite tough.
   "I didn't know she was going to play like that. To tell you the truth, I haven't watched her for a long time. I didn't prepare the right way. It was not so much about the drop shots. It was more about these loopy balls that I was playing when I was under 12."
   The last point of the first set was typical as Sakkari muscled a moonball long.
   In addition to making repeated errors, Sakkari served poorly. She converted only 49 percent of her first deliveries and had no aces and eight double faults, including two to get broken for 1-1 in the second set and two to lose her serve in the last game of the match. In both games, Sakkari double-faulted on break point. In the final game, her first double fault bounced in front of the net, and her second one sailed way long.
   Sakkari was mystified afterward about the cause of her serving woes.
   "That's a good question," she said. "That's something I want to ask my coach. If I (knew) what was wrong, I would (have changed) it. Maybe my legs were heavy, and I was not pushing enough to get power and height."
   Here are the San Jose singles and doubles draws and Sunday's schedule. Here's the singles draw for next week's $81,240 Nordic Naturals Challenger in Aptos, Calif. The men's tournament will be held at the Seascape Sports Club, a one-hour drive south of San Jose.
   Citi Open – Wild cards Cori Gauff, 15, of Delray Beach, Fla., and Caty McNally, 17, of Cincinnati beat fourth-seeded Maria Sanchez, a 29-year-old Modesto, Calif., product, and Fanny Stollar, 20, of Hungary 6-2, 6-2 in the final in Washington, D.C.
   Gauff last month became the youngest player to reach the singles round of 16 at Wimbledon since Jennifer Capriati in 1991.

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