World No. 1, Ashleigh Barty attempts to reach the quarter finals of the China Open for the first time when she plays home favourite, Saisai Zheng on Wednesday.
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Barty had not won a match at the China Open prior to this season, losing to Elina Svitolina in her only previous match in 2017, but she got off the mark on Tuesday with a 6-4 6-2 victory over Yulia Putintseva in her 2019 opener.
The Australian arrived the tournament under an injury cloud, as she had struggled with a calf problem during her semi-final defeat to Aryna Sabalenka in Wuhan last week, but she moved through her opening match unscathed, taking out Putintseva in an hour and 15 minutes.
Barty was afforded more time to recover after receiving a performance bye into the second round following her deep run in Wuhan. The top seed struck seven aces against Putintseva, winning 74% of points behind her first serve. Both players exchanged breaks to open the match, but Barty did not lose her serve after that, breaking once more in the first set, and twice in the second to run away with the win.
“It was solid today without being fantastic”, assessed Barty, who hit 23 winners. “It was what we needed to do today. There were times where it was pretty good and there were times where it was challenging. Pretty happy with how… we were able to get on a roll in the second set a little bit there.”
Barty is looking to reach her ninth quarter final of a wonderfully consistent season which has already yielded a maiden Grand Slam title at Roland Garros, and a first Premier Mandatory title in Miami. She also won the Birmingham title, a result that sealed her rise to No. 1 in the world. She has alternated that position with Naomi Osaka since that initial ascent, but she has held it now since the end of the US Open and is seeking a strong finish to secure the year-end No. 1 ranking.
Her most immediate task will be to take down Saisai Zheng in Beijing on Wednesday.
Chinese No. 3, Zheng recorded one of the biggest wins of her career on Tuesday, taking down former world No. 3, and former US Open champion, Sloane Stephens 6-3 6-1 to reach the third round of the China Open for the first time in her career.
Zheng had fallen at the first hurdle in her first four attempts in Beijing, but she finally won a match last year, beating Dayana Yastremska, but she lost to Sloane Stephens in the second round.
She got her revenge on Tuesday, scoring a very popular victory over the world No. 12 on China’s National Day. The home favourite was particularly strong on the big points, saving seven of eight break points, while she converted five of the six opportunities she created in a very efficient performance. The world No. 37 served four aces and won a healthy 75% of points on her first serve.
“I served pretty good today for the first serve, the angles,” Zheng said.
“This is the best National Day ever, with a victory, my first time into the third round of the China Open… I felt like I had nothing to lose today. I did not want to regret my performance on such a special day”.
Zheng was very close to missing the opportunity to perform on her country’s National Day, as she was on the brink of defeat in her tournament opener against Monica Puig, who served for the match at 5-4 in the final set, but the Chinese rallied to restore parity, before going on to take the match on a tie break.
She has backed up that win with a more convincing victory over Stephens, recording her second top-20 win of the season in the process. Her first came in the San Jose final, where she defeated Aryna Sabalenka to claim her maiden tour-level title.
That has been the highest point of her season so far, with her other notable efforts being quarter finals in Hua Hin, Acapulco and Zhengzhou, a third round in Madrid (where she was beaten by Stephens), and a title run at the WTA 125K meet in Anning.
Zheng has pulled off five top-ten wins in her career, with her biggest, in terms of ranking of the opposition, being a 7-5 6-1 victory over then No. 2, Angelique Kerber in Doha in 2016- can she score her first victory over a reigning world No. 1 when she plays Barty on Wednesday?
Barty owns a 3-0 record over Zheng, but two of their three meetings have gone the distance. Unlike the Zheng’s previous opponent, Stephens, Barty has been operating at a very high level for virtually the entire year, and should have a bit too much variety for the Chinese in Wednesday’s meeting.
Ashleigh Barty vs Saisai Zheng is live from Beijing on Wednesday, 2 October from 4:00pm local time/ 9:00am BST