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By Richard Pagliaro | @Tennis_Now | Monday, May 13, 2024


Zheng Qinwen reeled off seven straight games sweeping former No. 1 Naomi Osaka 6-2, 6-4 to reach her second straight Rome quarterfinal.

Photo credit: Mike Hewitt/Getty

Italian red clay isn’t Zheng Qinwen’s home soil.

It sure is a welcome comfort zone for the Chinese champion.

More: Tabilo Shocks Djokovic in Rome

Playing with patience and precision, Zheng raced through seven straight games dispatching Naomi Osaka 6-2, 6-4 to charge into her second straight Rome quarterfinal today.

“I know she’s always tough to beat,” Zheng said. “It doesn’t matter what surface it is because she’s won Grand Slam titles before.

“It’s not easy to come back from being a mother. I always have a lot of respect for a player like this. I think today I try to give everything on court trying to fight.”

The subplot of this showdown between power players suggested some lingering bad blood over a coaching change.

Wim Fissette, Zheng’s coach, dropped her last fall to return to coaching Osaka. Zheng concedes Fissette’s departure, which she called “an unethical end” left her in tears.

Rather than throwing a pity party, Zheng reunited with coach Pere Riba, who helped guide Coco Gauff to the 2023 US Open, and went back to work training in Barcelona. Riba was in Zheng’s box today as she scored her first career win over former world No. 1 Osaka.

Afterward, the women shared a respectful handshake and Zheng praised Osaka’s comeback from maternity leave.

“I’m really proud of myself,” Zheng said. “I want to say to Naomi that she did really good because not all players have this mentality to come back as a mother. Both not easy.”

Speaking to Tennis Channel's Prakash Amritraj afterward, Zheng addressed the bad blood topic in depth. Zheng said while she once felt frustration and some rage over her ex-coach dropping her, she took the court with total respect for Osaka and the strides she's made coming back from maternity leave.

"If you ask me [about bad blood] a few months before, after we break, like one month, two month, three months, four months, I will tell you yes absolutely,” Zheng told Prakash Amritraj. “I got really fired up, I want to kill my opponent, I want to put my frustration out. But you ask me right now, after many months—six, seven months already—I say no, it’s just a normal match for me.

“I treat her like a usual opponent. Of course, I have more respect to her because she come back as a monther. I think as a woman athlete, that is really not easy. I have all the respect for other women tennis players who come back as mothers.

“Because only women know how difficult that is. So I treat her [with] big respect like normal opponent. Nothing to think more. Just me against her and let’s play. I will give my best anyway.”

Australian Open finalist Zheng converted all four break points she earned and persistently pounded out errors from the two-time Australian Open champion’s backhand wing with higher, heavier topspin.

World No. 173 Osaka was coming off her first career Top 20 win on clay against Daria Kasatkina in round three and was playing for her first career Top 10 clay-court win and first Top 10 win since she beat No. 9 Kiki Bertens at the 2020 Brisbane.

Osaka suggested she should have played more proactive tennis in the opening set. 

"Honestly, I wasn't really surprised or frustrated. I mean, she's in the top 10, so I just really expect I guess amazing tennis from a top-10 player," Osaka told the media in Rome. "I think for me, if I was frustrated, it was more from myself.

"I don't know. I feel like I expected a lot from her, and it made me very overwhelmed with my own game. I don't really know how to articulate that properly."

Zheng kept moving the ball corner to corner and backed up her serve more effectively than the former world No. 1, who served just 50 percent in the match. That was higher than Zheng’s 48 percent serving percentage, but the former Palermo champion was often better on the first shot after the serve.

Osaka opened with a 2-1 lead, but sometimes struggled for net clearance on her flatter backhand wing. Zheng exploited it with that torrid seven game run, transforming a 1-2 deficit into a 6-4, 2-0 lead. Zheng, who faced only two break points all day, won 12 of 15 serve points during one stretch of that seven-game surge,

The seventh-seeded Zheng wrapped up the 37-minute opener.

Osaka stamped a love hold closing to 3-4 in the second set, but couldn’t consistently gain traction in longer baseline rallies.

"I think sometimes I felt like I had no choice but to do something because she might play it this way," Osaka said. "In reality, it wasn't like that at all.

"I kind of only understood that in the second set. That's why it was a bit closer. In the first set, I definitely overwhelmed myself after the first two or three games."

Serving for her second straight Rome quarterfinal, Zheng converted her second match point on an errant forehand from Osaka.

Italy has been a proving ground for Zheng, who will face either US Open champion Coco Gauff or Paula Badosa for a semifinal spot. Zheng aims to keep her love affair with Italian soil going strong.

“My first junior championship is in Italy,” Zheng said. “My first ITF championship is in Italy. My first WTA championship is in Italy. Right now, my second time in [Rome] quarterfinals.

“I just say I love to play in Italy.”


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