Sunday, October 7, 2018

What is it about the Asian swing?

Perhaps some players are exhausted and others are ready for a new start. That's one theory. At any rate, the Asian swing tends to bring about--if not surprises--at least, new takes on the state of the tour in a given season. Take 2011, when Aga Radwanska won both Tokyo and Beijing (there was no Wuhan tournament then). Or last year, when Caroline Garcia won both Wuhan and Beijing and launched herself into the WTA Finals.

This year, Karolina Pliskova suddenly re-emerged as a major force and won Tokyo, a premier event. Any victory is impressive, but this one may have been especially sweet because the Long Tall One defeated U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka in the final. Pliskova, in 2016, was considered the Next Big Thing. She reached the final of the U.S. Open. But her results after that were mixed. The 2018 Asian Swing, however, has put her back into the spotlight.

Wuhan, a premier 5 event, was just as interesting. And before I get to Aryna Sabalenka's victory, I want to highlight Anett Kontaveit's run to the final. Kontaveit has risen steadily, and so quietly, she has gone almost unnoticed. In Wuhan, the Estonian player defeated Sloane Stephens, Donna Vekic (another player who is finally reaching her potential), Zhang Shuai, Katerina Siniakova, and Wang Qiang. That's quite a run.

Sabalenka's Wuhan victory came as no surprise to me. The Belarusian has a complete game, and--just as important--a calm confidence. An opponent really does have to beat Sabalenka; she won't give anything away. Her 2019 season should be worth watching.

Finally (of the big ones), there was the China Open, won by Australian Open champion Caroline Wozniacki, who won in Beijing without dropping a set. The victory was her 30th title. Wozniacki and Naomi Osaka are the only two players to win both a major and a premier mandatory in the 2018 season.

The China Open was interesting for another reason: Wang Qiang gave us another outstanding performance, going all the way to the semifinals. In Wuhan, the Chinese player defeated the often-formidable Maria Sakkari, 8th seed and Tokyo champion Karolina Pliskova, Daria Gavrilova, and Monica Puig, before she retired against Anett Kontaveit.

In Beijing--playing as a wild card-Wang defeated 12th seed Alona Ostapenko and then she defeated Karolina Pliskova (this time the 7th seed) again. She followed that with a 7-5, 7-5 defeat of Wuhan champion Aryna Sabalenka, and then was stopped by Wozniacki.

The doubles results have also been notable. The Japanese team of Miyu Kato and Makoto Ninomiya won the Tokyo doubles title, defeating top seeds Andrea Sestini Hlavackova and Barbora Strycova in the final. Demi Schuurs and Elise Mertens won the Wuhan title, and Sestini Hlavackova and Strycova made to the Beijing final, too, and this time--they won.

Of course, there's more to the Asian swing than the premier events. The swing began in Guangzhou, and who won that? Altogether now: Wang Qiang! The Asian swing has put a well-deserved spotlight on Wang Qiang, and she's now one of the players I'm most interested in watching in 2019. Wang has a compelling court presence, a good all-around game and a very good serve.

Back to the other Asian swing events: Charleston and Cincinnati champion Kiki Bertens won the Korea Open, and Margarita Gasparyan won in Tashkent. Gasparyan's victory was one of the sweetest of the 2018 season; the Russian player was out for a long time after enduring three knee surgeries and considering retirement from the tour. She is currently ranked number 138 in the world.

The last two Asian swing tournaments, Hong Kong and Tianjin, will be played this week. The top seeds are Elina Svitolina and Karolina Pliskova (also a wild card). Naomi Osaka has withdrawn from Hong Kong because of a back injury. Also withdrawing were Ekaterina Makarova and Lesia Tsurenko.

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