Caroline Garcia greatly raised expectations for her 2018 season in the Chinese fortnight of late 2017.
Garcia, as you know, put a little woo-woo in Wuhan and added zing to Beijing, capturing both titles in the Chinese swing and rocketing to the WTA Finals, where she put up a good fight and very nearly reached the championship match. She powered her way to the semifinals and lost to Venus Williams in three sets. The table was set for 2018.
Garcia’s performance this past season did not meet her expectations or France’s hopes, but it was at least legitimate to wonder — at the end of October in 2017 — if the following season could become special.
So it also is for Wang Qiang as the Wuhan-Beijing fortnight comes to a close in October of 2018.
Wang didn’t win either tournament as Garcia did, but stacking together two semifinal runs gives her a pile of rankings points and, as a result, a spot in the top 25. Her points surge over the past two weeks will give her a seeded position at the 2019 Australian Open, since the majors saw sense and ditched the 16 seeds plan it previously considered. From that seeded position, Wang has a realistic chance of being able to play her way into tournaments in the first week and then confront formidable players (top-15) in the middle rounds and see how high she can climb.
Wang lost her Beijing semifinal on Saturday to Caroline Wozniacki. The age difference might be small — Wang is 26, Wozniacki 28 — but the match revealed the difference between merely having experience and having been tested at the highest levels of tour competition. Wozniacki has been there and done that in tennis — she has won a major, played in other major finals, won Premier Mandatory and Premier 5 titles, and climbed the mountain many times after having been pushed down by opponents and injuries alike. It is one thing to play on tour; it is another to play on tour and absorb a full spectrum of situations.
Wozniacki’s exposure to those situations showed in her 6-1, 6-3 win over Wang, especially in the second set.
This was one-way traffic in the first nine games of the match. Wozniacki bolted to a 6-1, 2-0 lead, using a high amount of spin to throw a different shape of ball at Wang, who arrived at the semifinals of Beijing by doing what she does best: defusing the pace of huge hitters by running down shots and redirecting them. Wang defeated Jelena Ostapenko, Karolina Pliskova, and Aryna Sabalenka to earn her semifinal berth. Those are all formidable ballstrikers who go big or go home… or against Wang, went big and still went home because Wang had the answers for each of them.
Wozniacki is cut from a different cloth, though — as we see so often in tennis, feeding pace to an opponent who likes pace is a mistake. Wozniacki knew that less pace was more effective. She didn’t give Wang the kinds of shots the 26-year-old was comfortable with. Up a set and a break, this match was on the verge of being a runaway two games into the second set.
Wang, to her great credit, adjusted. She found a measure of patience against an opponent who requires it. She focused on reducing errors and, for a time, thrived as a result. Wang reeled off three straight games to take a 3-2 lead in the second set. With the Chinese crowd behind her, Wang created the idea that she could make this a very tense contest. Recall that she came back from a 3-0 deficit to win the opening set against Sabalenka in Friday’s quarterfinals.
Wang was getting the hang of how to play in difficult scoreboard situations.
That’s when Wozniacki’s exposure to a full range of scenarios emerged.
When an opponent finally punches back after a prolonged period of struggle, what does a tennis player do? Flinch in the face of the reversal of fortune? Crumble in the presence of adversity? Or calmly ride out the brief but intense storm and get back on the beam? The great players find that latter route, and Wozniacki did precisely that with an easy hold for 3-3 then a break of serve for *4-3. She cruised to the finish line from there to make her first hardcourt final since the Australian Open back in January.
Wang had nothing to be ashamed of after another immensely successful week in her home country — the country where she plays her best tennis — but now the journey for her deepens, just as it did with Garcia leaving Beijing a year ago.
More will be said about this question in 2019, but it might as well be a banner draped over her locker wherever she goes on tour next year: Can you carry your game across the globe?
Coaches love to tell athletes that the sport is the same no matter where you play it. The conceptually simple piece of wisdom is meant to reinforce to athletes that it doesn’t matter which gymnasium in which you shoot a basketball; the mechanics of shooting remain the same. It doesn’t matter which football pitch you play on or which stadium in which you run; the fundamentals of playing football remain in place.
It doesn’t matter which continent you play tennis in; the process of hitting a ball and covering the court, all while adjusting to what an opponent tries to do to disrupt your game, is elemental to tennis in any world city and any tournament, not just the ones played in your home country.
If Wang Qiang can carry her game to other continents in 2019, she will know that her tennis can stand up against anyone else’s on the WTA Tour. She will also know how important a lesson Caroline Wozniacki taught her on the first Saturday of October in 2018.
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