Aryna Sabalenka soars in Wuhan, Singapore contenders must step up in Beijing

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Can't stop her: Aryna Sabalenka.

The fifth edition of the Wuhan Open wrapped up on Saturday with Aryna Sabalenka posting a convincing 6-3, 6-3 victory over Anett Kontaveit in the final to capture her second title of the year and her career.

It was an eventful week in Wuhan but there won’t be any time for players to stop and reflect on it as everyone’s attention swiftly turns to the China Open in Beijing, where main draw play already kicked off on Saturday.

Here are some of the main takeaways from the Wuhan Open and some things to look forward to in Beijing…

SUPER SABALENKA

Sabalenka’s sensational summer is turning into an awesome autumn as the 20-year-old continues her rapid rise.

This time last year, she was ranked 111 in the world. On Monday, she’ll rise to a career-high No. 16. Her Wuhan title makes her the youngest player to win a Premier 5-level tournament since Belinda Bencic won Toronto as an 18-year-old back in 2015.

Since her opening round loss in San Jose qualifying end of July, Sabalenka has put together a 20-4 win-loss record on tour – a stretch that included her maiden career titles in New Haven and Wuhan.

The Belarusian plays with so much power and aggression, but it’s been properly harnessed ever since she hired Dmitry Tursunov as a coach before the grass season.

She’s claimed seven top-10 scalps since then and is playing at such a high standard that we forget that she’s only 20 years old and hasn’t been competing at this level for so long.

“I think I had a great experience this summer. I played a lot of matches. I didn’t play before that much. Probably with every match I get more confidence on court. That’s why sometimes it looks like I am long time on this level. But inside sometimes I’m like fight with myself,” explained Sabalenka on Saturday.

At this point, you can’t help but wonder if Sabalenka can pull off a late charge and qualify for Singapore. She entered Wuhan at 20 in the Race, and is now up to No. 12. She’s just 670 points off the top-eight cut-off, and can close the gap on the leaders with a good run in Beijing. Caroline Garcia won Wuhan and Beijing back-to-back last season to make a surprise appearance in Singapore. Can Sabalenka follow suit?

“Before Wuhan, I was really thinking about Singapore, that I really want to get in there. It’s makes me really nervous. Like, I couldn’t move on the court, I couldn’t do anything,” said Sabalenka.

“Then when I was speaking with my coach, understand that is not the main goal for this year, it’s like not the main goal. Then I start to be more relaxed.

“Now I’m 11 or 10. I don’t know actually. I don’t think about it. If I get in, I will be so happy. If not, what I can do? I just have to come on the court and play.”

She has a bye in the Beijing first round and takes on either Garbine Muguruza or Ekaterina Makarova in round two.

SINGAPORE CONTENDERS MISS OPPORTUNITY

With all top 15 seeds losing before the quarter-finals in Wuhan, the main contenders to secure the six remaining spots in Singapore all walked away from the tournament in the exact same position as they entered it. This means Beijing will prove to be a real decider for many of these players, with 1000 points on the line for the champion.

SOME BIG NAMES FACING SERIOUS QUESTIONS

Caroline Wozniacki hasn’t won back-to-back matches since Eastbourne end of June. The Australian Open champion is No. 5 in the race and is still trying to lock down a spot in Singapore.

Garbine Muguruza hadn’t posted consecutive match wins since her run to the French Open semi-finals in June before she reached the third round in Wuhan last week. She ended up losing to Katerina Siniakova and is just No. 16 in the Race.

Elina Svitolina, who hasn’t been as consistent as she’d like to be since winning Rome in May, had a solid US Open, making the fourth round, but her Asia swing has got off to a tricky start, losing to Sabalenka in her Wuhan opener, and blowing a 6-0, 4-1 lead against Aleksandra Krunic in the first round in Beijing on Saturday. The Ukrainian is No. 6 in the Race to Singapore and could lose her position if others do well at the China Open this week.

FUTURE OF CHINESE TENNIS SEEMS BRIGHT

From Wang Qiang’s stunning few months that saw her win two titles in China, an Asian Games gold, and reach the semis in Wuhan, to Wang Xiyu’s US Open junior success and brave performance in Wuhan (the 17-year-old held four match points against world No. 13 Daria Kasatkina), the future of Chinese tennis looks quite promising. Even the Wuhan tournament itself showed great progress. More fans were in the stands for every session, compared to previous years, and you can tell spectators are getting more knowledgeable about the sport.

OSAKA’S GREAT FORM

US Open champion Naomi Osaka is back in action this week after skipping Wuhan with a viral illness. The young Japanese followed up her run in New York with a final appearance in Tokyo, showing incredible poise amid the pressure that comes with being a new Grand Slam champion. Osaka takes on qualifier Zarina Diyas in her Beijing first round and is keeping things simple as she looks to secure her ticket to Singapore – something she admits she couldn’t imagine would be a possibility at the start of the season.

“After I won Indian Wells, I saw I was on, like, the board, I could possibly make it. I was really excited for that,” added Osaka.

“We know how my grass and my clay court season went, so it sort of slipped my mind again. Yeah, then after I won the US Open, like, I saw that I was really close, and definitely I would want to go. I won the Rising Stars event there before. It definitely holds a lot of special memories. I think if I could go, then I would definitely be very honoured.”

On how she’s kept her level-headed mentality post-US Open, the 20-year-old said: “I’m the type of person that I don’t really stop to think about what I’ve done. I just want to keep doing things. I want to keep pushing myself, especially when I see other people my age doing really great.

“Maybe at the end of this year I’ll think about what I’ve done. But for me right now, I’m focused on this tournament. I know that all the best players in the world are here, so definitely, I don’t know, when I’m around a tournament, I feel like I just focus on winning.”

JABEUR’S BIG TEST

Tunisian world No. 113 Ons Jabeur posted impressive straight-set wins over Monica Puig and Tatjana Maria to qualify for the China Open and will commence her campaign against top seed Simona Halep on Sunday. This will be Jabeur’s first meeting against a reigning world No. 1, and her fourth against a top-five player. She is 1-2 against top-five opposition, with her sole victory coming against Dominika Cibulkova at the French Open last year.

Halep sustained a back injury in Wuhan that troubled her in her opening round loss to Cibulkova and says the pain has not subsided yet.

“It’s much better than that day, but still sore. I try just to do as many as I can treatments because it’s really important. So I feel better. Hopefully tomorrow I will be really good,” Halep told reporters in Beijing on Friday.

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