Tennis

Naomi Osaka among players hoping for redemption at Pan Pacific Open

by Joel Tansey

Staff Writer

Redemption is the theme as the 2019 edition of the Pan Pacific Open gets underway Monday with a weaker field than in year’s past, with only two of the world’s top 10 players competing. Still, 12 of the world’s top 30 are due to take the court at Osaka’s Utsubo Tennis Center, where world No. 4 Naomi Osaka learned to play tennis as a toddler, and the absence of some of the Women’s Tennis Association’s top players will provide an opportunity for the hometown favorite and a host of other struggling stars to get their confidence back and make a run at the title.

A break down of players to watch in this week’s field:

Struggling stars:

Naomi Osaka, Japan
World ranking: 4
Tournament best: Finalist (2016, 2018)

Osaka enters the Pan Pacific Open fresh off a split with another coach and a disappointing summer hard court season. Jermaine Jenkins took the reins from Sasha Baijin following Osaka’s Australian Open win and mediocre results ensued. Altogether, Osaka went 20-10 under Jenkins and failed to make it to a final at any tournament. Osaka appeared more content with her game during the North American hard court season — often smiling on court in a mood shift from her demeanor earlier this season — where she made the quarterfinals in Toronto and Cincinnati and the Round of 16 in her title defense in New York. At her final postmatch U.S. Open news conference she said she had “learned so much” and grown. But that type of mentality will only satisfy the two-time grand slam champion for so long. Eventually the results must follow, and that can start this week on home soil. Having Yulia Putintseva — who upset her twice this summer, including in the first round of Wimbledon — as a possible quarterfinal matchup will surely give her some pause.

Kiki Bertens, Netherlands
World ranking: 8
Tournament best: First appearance

The summer hasn’t been kind to the big-serving Bertens, who comes into the Pan Pacific Open in poor form after having failed to make it past the third round at any tournament in North America, including in Cincinnati where she was the defending champion. A contender for world No. 1 earlier this season, Bertens has been on a steady fall since the clay court season and will need to find her form early if she hopes to play herself into contention. The promising Dayana Yastremska could await in round 2, after Bertens’ first round bye.

Sloane Stephens, United States
World ranking: 14
Tournament best: Second round (2013)

It’s been an up-and-down, but mostly down, season for the 2017 U.S. Open champion. Some positive results on clay can do little to mask Stephens’ dismal 9-10 record on hard courts in 2019 and she is in danger of tumbling further down the rankings with little hope of defending the points she earned at last year’s WTA Finals in Singapore — she’s No. 23 in the season-long race and only the top 8 qualify. Still, Stephens is dangerous on any court and can seemingly find her top level on any given week.

Angelique Kerber, Germany
World ranking: 15
Tournament best: Finalist (2013)

Continuing on the theme of struggling stars, Angelique Kerber comes into the Pan Pacific Open having failed to make it past the second round at any of the past three grand slams. In fact, the three-time grand slam champion is on a five-match losing streak and hasn’t tasted victory since the first round of Wimbledon, where she was the defending champion. Interestingly, Osaka, Bertens, Stephens and Kerber were in the same group in last year’s WTA Finals and all have struggled to varying degrees in the latter half of 2019. Of those four, Kerber, who hasn’t won a match in over two months, appears to be the least likely to break through and she could be in tough to avoid a sixth loss in a row, with Wimbledon quarterfinalist Alison Riske as her potential opponent in round 2, after Kerber’s first round bye.

In good form:

Madison Keys, United States
World ranking: 16
Tournament best: Third round (2013)

Unlike the rest of the top five in Osaka, Keys comes into the tournament in fine form, having won in Cincinnati and lost a close two-set match to Elina Svitolina in New York. Overall, Keys hasn’t quite taken the next step in her development in 2019 that’s long been expected of her. But she certainly has the overall game and hard court acumen to compete for the title next week and with all the opponents seeded above working through slumps, she might be the smart pick to be the one lifting the trophy next Sunday.

Petra Martic, Croatia
World ranking: 23
Tournament best: Third round (2013)

The 28-year-old Martic had a nice run at the U.S. Open, topping Anastasija Sevastova, the No. 6 seed in Osaka, in the third round before losing to Serena Williams in the Round of 16. She had an even better week in Zhengzhou, China, where she made a run to the final before falling to Karolina Pliskova on Sunday. A late bloomer who’s enjoying a breakout campaign, Martic is solidly in the mix at the Pan Pacific Open and could face Osaka in the quarterfinals.

Elise Mertens, Belgium
World ranking: 24
Tournament best: Quarterfinals (2017)

Mertens tore through the first four rounds of her U.S. Open draw, dropping only 16 games and never spending more than an hour and 11 minutes on court. Her run came to an end in the quarterfinals at the hands of eventual champion Bianca Andreescu, but the performance in New York still represented Mertens’ second-best performance at a slam. A first round matchup with Sevastova and a potential second-round encounter with two-time slam champion Garbine Muguruza means she’ll have to be on her toes right out of the gates.

Wildcard:

Garbine Muguruza, Spain
World ranking: 27
Tournament best: Semifinals (2014, 2017)

It still feels odd to see Muruguza enter a tournament as an afterthought, but that’s where things stand with the former world No. 1. Muruguza fired her longtime coach after a first-round exit at Wimbledon, but that move didn’t pay dividends in New York, where she was ousted by Riske in the first round. Muguruza hasn’t won a match since the French Open and that streak may continue with her first-round matchup against the tricky Hsieh Su-wei lined up in the first round, but surely the 25-year-old isn’t completely done as a force on the tour. Perhaps the road back to the top starts this week.