Monday, August 5, 2019

Zheng wins San Jose with a lot of help from her friend

Champion Zheng Saisai, middle, and members of the San Jose State football
team pose in front of Spartan statues. The university's football stadium is next
to the site of the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic. Photo by Mal Taam
   SAN JOSE, Calif. – After a strong start to the clay-court season in the spring, Zheng Saisai thought she was on her way.
   Instead, the 25-year-old Chinese player lost six of her next seven matches on clay and grass. She arrived in San Jose with first-round losses in her last four tournaments. Granted, three of the four came against top-16 players, and the other was against 35-year-old Samantha Stosur, who has won seven Grand Slam titles (one in singles, three in women's doubles and three in mixed doubles).
   But after a conversation with her best friend, the unseeded Zheng (pronounced Jung) knocked off four consecutive seeds in the second annual Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic, which launches the hardcourt U.S. Open series, en route to her first WTA singles title. In Sunday's final, Zheng toppled second-seeded Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus 6-3, 7-6 (3).
   Zheng also:
   –Demolished eighth-seeded Danielle Collins, an American who reached last year's semifinals in San Jose, 6-2, 6-0 in the second round.
   –Outlasted 17-year-old American Amanda Anisimova, the fourth seed who reached the French Open semifinals in June, 5-7, 7-5, 6-4 in the quarterfinals in the longest match of the tournament (2 hours, 52 minutes).
   –Frustrated seventh-seeded Maria Sakkari, last year's runner-up from Greece, 7-6 (5), 6-2 in the semifinals.
   "Before, I wasn't (playing) this well," Zheng, who pocketed $151,070 in her second career WTA final to surpass $3 million in career earnings, said after the final. "After Wimbledon, I (was) back in China. My best friend (Ng Kwan-yau, a 22-year-old player from Hong Kong) tell me, 'You know, Saisai, when you are calm and not so emotional, you can use your brain. You will play your best tennis. But she doesn't see that last few months. Then I realized, OK, I probably (feel) too much pressure, too much expectation. This week, I start to enjoy and don't think (about) the result and play each point.
   "I really want to thank her. I was losing a lot, and I realized (feeling pressure) is a problem. I fixed it this week, and it turns out good."
Zheng Saisai used her outstanding movement to upset top-10 player Aryna Saba-
lenka in Sunday's final. Photo by Mal Taam
   Zheng recorded her fifth victory over a top-10 player and became the first Chinese singles champion in the 49-year history of the San Francisco Bay Area stop on the WTA tour, the longest-running women's professional tournament in the world. She won the doubles title in the 2015 Bank of the West Classic at Stanford with compatriot Xu Yifan and earned the first of her first 302 main-draw singles victories on the WTA tour at Stanford in 2012.
   Both Zheng and Sabalenka, 21, equaled their career highs in today's new weekly world rankings. Zheng jumped 17 places to No. 38, and Sabalenka improved one spot to No. 9.
   Sunday's final matched the 5-foot-7 (1.70-meter) Zheng's outstanding movement and consistency against the 5-foot-11 (1.82-meter) Sabalenka's tremendous power. Zheng prevailed by mixing up her shots and keeping the ball in play until Sabalenka made an error.
   "Obviously, you don't want to play fast, fast, fast with her," said Zheng, who improved to 2-0 against Sabalenka. "She the best (at) this. The tactic is (to) put the ball deep, and whenever I see space, let her run and change (the pace) if I can (with) slice or high ball. If I give her same ball, she will hit winner from any corner, so I was just trying to mix it up.
   "I was focused. I wasn't overthinking anything. I (told myself) this is not a final; this is a normal match. Just enjoy."
Aryna Sabalenka said she was "freaking out" against Zheng Saisai. Photo by
Mal Taam
   Sabalenka sounded much like the 5-foot-8 (1.72) Sakkari, another hard hitter, after losing to Zheng.
   When asked what went wrong, Sabalenka said "everything – my game, my reaction, my backhand, forehand, serve, tactic (in) the match. Emotional side was really ... I was freaking out. I couldn't do anything today with myself. I couldn't control my emotions. I was screaming some s---. I was throwing the racket, always speaking with my team trying to get something from them, but actually it was in my head. They couldn't do anything, but I was looking to them like, Tell me something that's going to help me come back in this match because she's like crazy player. She's going for crazy (moonballs), then slice, then flat backhand, and you always have to adjust for the ball.
   "Yesterday's match (against Donna Vekic) was kind of like flat (shots), but here it was completely different game. I just wasn't ready for this match. This is my mistake. I knew her game – we watched her a little bit – but still it wasn't enough to actually play."
   Zheng's high balls were particularly effective.
   "Her game destroy me because I couldn't use my power," said Sabalenka, who lost in the first round of qualifying in San Jose last year to Maria Sanchez, a Modesto, Calif., product ranked No. 258, after leading 6-2, 5-3. "I wasn't ready for that. In practice, I work a lot on these shots, and I know how to play, but I never actually played against those kind of players. Probably I have to work a little bit more on this game."
   Sabalenka committed eight double faults, including one on Zheng's first championship point, and struggled to return Zheng's modest serve, repeatedly slugging not only first but second serves out.
   Sabalenka was playing in her first final since winning her third career WTA singles title in Shenzhen, China, in the first week of the year. She had the same problem with pressure on Sunday that Zheng solved.
   "Of course, I wanted to do well," said Sabalenka, who collected $80,500 to top $3.5 million for her career. "That's why I (had) a lot of emotions on the court. Next time, if I will be a little bit relaxed on the court, just enjoy, probably things can happen different direction. The main thing is I just need to be calm on the court and play my tennis and don't care about anything else."
Forty-four-year-old Kveta Peschke, left, won her second consecutive San Jose
doubles title, this time with Nicole Melichar. Photo by Mal Taam
   Sabalenka's coach, former top-20 player Dmitry Tursunov, praised Zheng and said his protege needs to be more patient.
   "(Sabalenka) didn't play well, for sure, but the main thing is her opponent managed to make her not play well," said Tursunov, who moved alone from his native Moscow to Los Altos in the San Francisco Bay Area at 12 to train and owns a townhouse in the Sacramento suburb of Folsom that he rents out. "Watching that match, I kept thinking of a (Fabrice) Santoro-(Marat) Safin matchup where Safin was losing his mind. It's a tough matchup. For Aryna, these types of opponents will always create problems. You have to really know how to play them and develop your game in such a way where you can stay in points long enough to earn an opportunity to attack.
   "Right now, definitely, there (are) too many premature attacks, and (there's) chaotic behavior on the court. It's part of the growing process. It's kind of a David and Goliath matchup where you have to really develop your game to be able to maybe not use so much power, maybe use a little more finesse and develop the point versus trying to just win it outright."
   Santoro, a 5-foot-10 (1.78-meter) Frenchman, reached career highs of No. 17 in singles in 2001 and No. 6 in doubles in 1999. He was 7-2 against the 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) Safin, Tursunov's teammate on Russia's 2006 Davis Cup championship team who was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2016.
   After Sabalenka held serve for 3-4 in the first set Sunday, Zheng reeled off four straight games to lead 2-0 in the second set. Sabalenka then won three games in a row, breaking Zheng twice, to get back in the match. But Sabalenka double-faulted twice in the next game, including on break point, for 3-3.
   Both players then held serve to send the set into a tiebreaker. Zheng raced to a 4-1 lead (one mini-break) with the help of two Sabalenka errors. With Zheng leading 5-3, Sabalenka sailed a forehand return of an 80-mph (128.8-kilometer) first serve long to give Zheng her first championship point. After Sabalenka missed her first serve, Zheng stood several feet inside the baseline to receive the second delivery, which Sabalenka netted. Sabalenka then slammed her racket on the court, picked it up and flung it at her chair.
   Ng, of course, isn't the only one who has helped Zheng.
   "I want to thank Alan (Ma, the head coach of the Star River Professional Tennis Club in Guangzhou, China)," Zheng said."He always support me. He the one believe in me from the beginning. He's saying I'm going to be good. Even I don't know if I'm going to be good or if I'm going to go pro, but he tell me, 'You're going to be good. You just keep going.' I really want to thank him."
   Zheng wasn't finished.
   "One more. I want to thank my mom," Zheng added, eliciting a  big laugh from the media. "She's the one bring me to play tennis, always support me, believe in me. Whenever tough moments, she will say, 'If you don't want to play, OK, let's go back.' You always know someone is there. It's a lot of love."
   No pun intended.
   Earlier Sunday, 44-year-old Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic won her second consecutive San Jose doubles title, this time with 26-year-old Nicole Melichar, a Czech-born American. The top-seeded pair beat unseeded Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara of Japan 6-4, 6-4. Peschke won last year's title with Latisha Chan of Taiwan.
   Here are the complete San Jose singles and doubles draws.
   Here are the singles qualifying draw, singles main draw, doubles main draw and Tuesday's schedule in the $81,240 Nordic Naturals Challenger at the Seascape Sports Club in Aptos, Calif., a one-hour drive south of San Jose on the Pacific Ocean. In its 32nd year, the tournament is the longest-running men's Challenger in the United States. It's being streamed live.

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