Tennis: Russia’s Samsonova credits Wimbledon ban for red-hot form

TOKYO – Liudmila Samsonova said that Wimbledon’s ban on Russian players had given her time to transform her game, after winning her third title in four tournaments on Sunday at the Pan Pacific Open.

The Russian world No. 30 beat China’s emerging teenager Zheng Qinwen 7-5, 7-5 to add to the titles she won in Washington and Cleveland in August, having not dropped a set all week in Tokyo.

The 23-year-old said she was “shocked” when she heard that Russian and Belarusian players would be banned from the June-July Wimbledon Grand Slam in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

She used the month off to sharpen her game and is now reaping the benefits, having also beaten Wimbledon champion Elena Rybakina and two-time Grand Slam winner Garbine Muguruza this week in the Japanese capital.

“I said, ‘OK, I have one month without tournaments, so let’s work this month’,” said the powerful Samsonova, who hits between 120 and 150 practice serves every day.

“I used it so well because I was working so hard. I had 32 days of just practising, which is not normal at that time of the year for a tennis player.”

Samsonova said she worked on her mental strength and technique during her summer break, and the improvement was plain to see in Tokyo.

She had her service broken only once in the final during a controlled performance against fast-rising Zheng.

“I was feeling great physically but I was feeling a little bit tired mentally,” said Samsonova, who reached the last 16 at the recent US Open.

“I’m very happy how I managed today with the pressure – it’s unbelievable what I did today. All the week was really impressive and I’m really happy about my game.”

The 19-year-old Zheng was appearing in her first WTA final and knocked out Spanish top seed Paula Badosa in the second round.

Zheng was ranked outside the top 150 this time last year but she has since risen to 36 and will be named in the top 30 when the latest rankings are published on Monday.

“This week has been really good and I had a good performance,” said Zheng, who took a set off world No. 1 Iga Swiatek in the last 16 at this year’s French Open.

“But I think I can do a lot more than this. This was an experience – it was my first time to arrive in a final. I just hope next time I can come back stronger and better,” she added.

The Pan Pacific Open was being held for the first time since 2019 because of the pandemic.

A host of big names departed early, with US Open semi-finalist Caroline Garcia of France joining Badosa in a second-round exit.

Japanese home favourite and defending champion Naomi Osaka withdrew before her second-round match after complaining of abdominal pain. AFP

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