Australian Open 2016

Overawed by Li Na but not her opponent on court: China unknown Wang Qiang sends Sloane Stephens packing in Melbourne

Qualifier stuns American opponent, who won the recent Auckland Classic, in the first round as 24-year-old puts her hand up as the mainland’s next singles star since Li Na’s retirement

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 11:58pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 19 January, 2016, 9:24am

It was a bad day at the office for Sloane Stephens, but an unforgettable one for Chinese qualifier Wang Qiang, who sent the former semi-finalist spinning out of the Australian Open with a stinging first-round defeat on Monday.

The 24-year-old revealed she missed out on an opportunity to get some tips from Chinese tennis icon Li Na as the former Australian Open champion mixed with the Chinese entrants at a pre-tournament function.

I’d feel strange walking up to her and asking her ‘Miss, how should I play tomorrow?’
Wang Qiang

Wang said she felt too awkward to approach Asia’s first grand slam singles champion, a sporting hero in her country.

“I didn’t because there were a lot of people there and actually we’re not that familiar,” she said.

“I’d feel strange walking up to her and asking her ‘Miss, how should I play tomorrow?’”

American Stephens entered the tournament seeded 24th after enjoying a confidence boost from winning her second WTA title at Auckland in the lead-up, but racked up 36 unforced errors in a meek 6-3, 6-3 capitulation at Hisense Arena.

China has longed for a new force in women’s tennis following the retirement of two-time grand slam champion Li Na in 2014 and 102nd-ranked Wang’s victory offered an encouraging glimpse of the next generation’s potential.

“She’s a good player and I watched her match before, so I know her a little bit and I just tried,” said Wang, her country’s number two after Zheng Saisai and one of five Chinese women in the draw.

“It was my first time at Hisense, so I was a little bit nervous.”

Former world number two Li remains fondly welcomed as an ambassador at the year’s first grand slam, where she won the 2014 title in her third trip to the final and gave a hilarious winner’s speech thanking her agent for “making her rich” and her hen-pecked husband for “fixing the drinks”.

Stephens broke into the tennis spotlight at the Australian Open three years ago when she upset Serena Williams as a care-free 19-year-old on an electrifying run to the semi-finals.

She followed that up with a quarter-final appearance at Wimbledon the same year but has not surpassed the fourth round at a grand slam since.

America’s disappointment at her failure to progress has seen some withering media critiques in the ensuing years and Stephens said she had struggled with the negative attention in the past.

“After Auckland everyone was like 'oh, we can support Sloane again because she's playing good and she's looking good and we need to get back on that bandwagon because we kind of abandoned her',” she said.

“And then you lose and they go back to ‘she doesn’t work hard, she’s not committed, she doesn’t love the game’.

“For me, I'm never going to win ... I'm human so I have bad days.”

Meanwhile, former world number one Caroline Wozniacki crashed out of the Open at the first hurdleafter tossing away a one-set lead against Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva.

The Dane, who remains one of the most marketable players in tennis despite never winning a major in 35 attempts, again failed to break her grand slam drought.

She romped through the first set against the 76th-ranked Putintseva but as the Kazakh’s confidence, grew Wozniacki struggled to cope with her opponent’s baseline game and went down 1-6, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4 in three hours and 12 minutes.

“I can’t believe I won the match,” said 21-year-old Putintseva, who was shaking with nerves in her courtside interview and revealed she battled through blisters on her feet.

“I was very nervous in the first set because I am not used to playing on such a big court. But then I got a bit more used to it.”

Her reward is a second round-clash with Chinese wildcard Han Xinyun, and a potential fourth-round encounter with world number one Serena Williams.

It was a disappointing start to the year for Wozniacki, who has struggled to regain the form that saw her end 2010 and 2011 as world number one.

She won in Malaysia last year but other highlights were few and far between.

Capping off her misery, she cut her finger badly with a bread knife and withdrew from the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, southern China, in November.

Reuters, Agence France-Presse