PREVIEW | WTA China Open as top stars return in most stacked line-up since US Open

Saturday, 30 September 2023 at 09:20
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For the first time since the Peng Shuai saga, WTA tennis will resume in China with the boycott being lifted and the most stacked field being assembled for the first time since the US Open at the China Open. Preview looks at all the main talking points ahead of September 30 - 8 October in this WTA 1000 tournament.
It is the second WTA 1000 since the US Open, but due to the proximity of Guadalajara Open AKRON to Flushing Meadows, many decided not to play.
Some big names have flirted with returning to action including Iga Swiatek who lost in Tokyo, Elena Rybakina who withdrew due to performance byes and Ons Jabeur who is in the final in Ningbo.

Gauff and Sabalenka make returns after US Open final run

Two players in particular who did not make the trip to Guadalajara or even enter were Coco Gauff and Aryna Sabalenka who will make their first appearances since the US Open.
For Gauff, it was in winning the title and in Sabalenka, it was another Grand Slam disappointment, but one that did gleam the World Number One spot. A position that will take some getting used to especially with Swiatek reigning supreme for over a year.
Sabalenka it could be said has a simpler run than some of her seeded foes. She starts tricky against Sofia Kenin, but then likely won't face a seed till the third round being Beatriz Haddad Maia.
While in Gauff's return, it is the tricky Ekaterina Alexandrova who reached the latter stages in Tokyo or it will be Sorana Cirstea or Petra Martic. Veronika Kudermetova and Maria Sakkari both with performance byes from Tokyo both lurk too in that section.
Gauff in particular has won 18/19 matches in a row so backing it up likely won't be an issue. But in facing players like Kudermetova or Alexandrova who have been in action in recent weeks, it could be either a help or hindrance.

Points to prove for Swiatek and Rybakina

But from two players who are returning to two with potential points to prove in Iga Swiatek and Elena Rybakina.
Swiatek did reach the Quarter-Finals in Tokyo, but the previously imperious Pole has seen criticism levied that she is not the dominant force of the past year while she has been World Number One.
Whether the pressure coming off helps her remains to be seen, but in her first big tournament not as World Number One, she will aim to put out a statement.
For Rybakina too who has not been the same player 100% since her illness debacle at Roland Garros has spent the last few months criticising the WTA more than getting meaningful wins.
From the scheduling fiasco in Montreal to Tokyo last week which saw performance byes issued and Rybakina rightfully challenging the WTA for not handing them out previously when players have to go straight from finals to other countries.
She said she wasn't ready to play Linda Noskova, but went straight to Beijing showing that health and fitness likely wasn't a huge issue, this also saw Swiatek and Pegula receive performance byes but not Rybakina in a last minute change.
This time though, they have solely been given to those still involved in Tokyo.

Superb Sakkari looks to continue form

One player who does benefit from that is Maria Sakkari who has been the standout player since the US Open after crying following defeat to Rebeka Masarova and wondering whether to take a break.
Sakkari and Caroline Garcia have been two players gaining form again especially while big names haven't been playing and she could head into Beijing with two titles in two weeks. Albeit facing Jessica Pegula in the semi-finals as of time of writing, but it is superb signs for the Greek.
It is also a big talking point due to WTA Finals contention, Sakkari didn't look anywhere near before the last two weeks but after seven straight wins is well in contention. The race is narrowing down but can 'The Spartan' force her way in.

Qinwen Zheng returns home after Asian Games and emergence outside top 20

Another storyline is the return of Qinwen Zheng to China. Albeit now living and training abroad, she has emerged as the new Queen of Chinese tennis and that has been furthered by winning the Asian Games.
She will likely get top court billing and this is in a year which saw her reach the US Open Quarter-Finals and head towards the top 20 in the world.
Albeit it has been an up and down week for the player known as 'Queenwen' who saw her coaching partnership with Wim Fissette abruptly end in a breach of contract as he wanted to return to coaching Naomi Osaka ahead of a 2024 return.
Zheng herself was left a bit miffed about the situation and now will set about finding a new coach, but will aim to continue her dazzling year back home.

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