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Osaka set for showdown against Stephens at WTA Finals

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SINGAPORE — Naomi Osaka and Sloane Stephens, the last two U.S. Open champions, will make their career debuts at the WTA Finals by playing each other in their first match in Singapore on Monday.

The initial stage of the eight-player WTA Finals field is a round-robin competition with two teams of four players. The two players with the best record from each round-robin group advance to next Saturday’s semifinals.

It’s been a whirlwind six weeks for Osaka, a dual Japanese-American citizen who plays under the Japanese flag, since winning the U.S. Open.

Her Open victory – the second title of her career with the first coming at Indian Wells in April – was marred by controversy as opponent Serena Williams initiated a number of run-ins with umpire Carlos Ramos during the match.

“For me, I think I’m playing tournament after tournament, so I don’t really have time to think about, like, my life changing or anything,” said Osaka, of her new celebrity status. “So, yeah, I feel like I would need the year to end to maybe process more.

“I mean, with the recognition part, I do feel a bit different,” she added. “Like before it was only Japan I felt like people know me. But now like even here, I guess this is Asia, too, though, so it doesn’t really count, but like in the airports and stuff. I just think that that’s kind of funny.”

Stephens, 25, who won the U.S. Open in 2017, is looking forward to this second outing against Osaka. She won their first meeting in the 2016 Acapulco quarterfinals in straight sets.

“I think it will be super fun and it’s a great matchup,” Stephens said. “Obviously everyone works all year long to get here. It’s my debut here as well as hers, so it’s new territory for both of us. We both have had amazing accomplishments so we’ll be looking forward to the match and we’ll see what happens.”

Both are hoping they handle this new experience of qualifying for the year-end tournament with ease.

For Stephens, the biggest concern is adjusting to the unfamiliar round-robin format.

“I haven’t played a round-robin since I started playing tennis at Sierra Sport and Racquet Club, and you had to play the round robin to advance in your ladder,” Stephens said. “Yeah, I was, like, 10. So I’m really not sure how it works. But I think you just play and try to win and whatever happens happens.”

Osaka is hoping that just being part of the WTA Finals won’t give her the jitters.

“I hope I don’t get overwhelmed,” Osaka said. “You never really know how you’re gonna feel until you’re in that moment. So I can only hope that I’ll play well and I won’t get, like, nervous or anything, which I’m sure I will, but I feel like that’s all part of the process.”

The two join Angelique Kerber, the reigning Wimbledon champion, and Kiki Bertens, who qualified for the tournament when No. 1 Simona Halep withdrew with a herniated disc in her back, in the Red Group. Kerber and Bertens play Monday’s second scheduled match.

The competition gets under way with White Group action on Sunday.

Petra Kvitova, the 2011 WTA Finals champion, will play Elina Svitolina, who debuted here last year, in the opening match. Caroline Wozniacki, the defending champion, faces Karolina Pliskova, making a third consecutive appearance here, in the second match.

Despite not being able to play here, Halep is in Singapore and received the WTA Player of the Year award at the black-tie WTA Finals Gala on Friday night. The Romanian won her first Grand Slam title at this year’s French Open and was an Australian Open finalist.

“Winning a Grand Slam and finishing No. 1, I think it’s the most that I could ask for,” Halep said. “I had also tough moments, because Melbourne, it was really tough to get over and to come back stronger.

“I’m proud that I could come back stronger and I could make a better result. So I think definitely, actually, is the best year of my career.”

Tsitsipas is youngest man in Slam SFs since ’07

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) The Latest on Tuesday at the Australian Open (all times local):

4 p.m.

Stefanos Tsitsipas is the youngest man to reach a Grand Slam semifinal since 2007 after beating Roberto Bautista Agut 7-5, 4-6, 6-4, 7-6 (2) at the Australian Open to follow up on his stunning upset of Roger Federer.

Tsitsipas is the first player from Greece to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam, and at 20 years, 168 days, is the youngest man to make the semifinals at a major since Novak Djokovic at the 2007 U.S. Open. He’s the youngest man to do so in Australia since Andy Roddick in 2003.

The No. 14-seeded Tsitsipas will play either 17-time major winner Rafael Nadal or first-time quarterfinalist Frances Tiafoe.

“I’m just living the dream,” said Tsitsipas, who had beaten six-time Australian Open winner Federer in the fourth round.

The No. 22-seeded Bautista Agut advanced the hard way, spending more than 14 hours on court through his first four rounds. He had three five-setters starting with a victory over five-time Australian Open finalist Andy Murray, followed by another against Australian John Millman and, after advancing through the third round in straight sets, his fourth-round win over 2018 finalist Marin Cilic went the distance as well.

2 p.m.

Li Na saw much of herself in a young player on the women’s tour early last year.

The two-time Grand Slam champion didn’t hesitate to anoint Japan’s Naomi Osaka as the player with a bright future.

So, Li, to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in July along with fellow former Australian Open champions Mary Pierce and Yevgeny Kafelnikov, was not surprised when Osaka won the 2018 U.S. Open and is already a quarterfinalist at Melbourne Park this time.

Li was a trailblazer in women’s tennis, becoming the first player from China to win a WTA title – in 2004 – and the first from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title when she won the 2011 French Open. She also won the Australian Open in 2014 after losing two previous finals here.

“When I first saw Naomi Osaka play, I thought she was really calm, very mature on court. She was so focused on her game itself, no pressure, point by point. That quality and the player’s focus really impressed,” she said through a Chinese translator.

1:45 p.m.

Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai have combined for an upset 7-6 (2), 7-6 (4) women’s doubles quarterfinal win over top-ranked Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova on Day 9 at the Australian Open.

Krejcikova and Siniakova won the French Open and Wimbledon doubles titles last year and reached the semifinals at the U.S. Open to finish 2018 with the No. 1 ranking.

“They’re a great team – won 2 Slams last year, so we did well,” Stosur said. “We came back from a break in both sets – looking forward to tomorrow.”

Stosur, who had a career high No. 4 ranking in singles and won 2011 U.S. Open title, has two major women’s doubles titles but lost the only final she reached at Melbourne Park in 2006.

“It would be amazing,” Stosur said of winning at home. “I guess we’re close now, in the semis. It only gets harder here.”

Stefanos Tsitsipas was playing Roberto Bautista Agut in the first of the singles quarterfinals on Tuesday, and 17-time major winner Rafael Nadal was playing the last night match on Rod Laver Arena against Frances Tiafoe.

More AP Tennis: https://www.apnews.com/apf-Tennis and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Sore, tired Djokovic expects to be OK for QFs

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MELBOURNE, Australia (AP) — The Latest on Monday at the Australian Open (all times local):

2 a.m.

Record-chasing Novak Djokovic is feeling sore and tired following his late-finishing win over Daniil Medvedev, but thinks he will be OK for his Australian Open quarterfinal match against Kei Nishikori.

“I didn’t feel so great, you know, in the last 20 minutes of the match or so,” Djokovic, aiming for a record seventh men’s title in Australia, said after overcoming a couple of tumbles and a series of energy-sapping baseline exchanges in the 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-3 win.

Immediately after the match, he said in a TV interview that he had never felt fresher.

At a later news conference, he was more circumspect about his preparation for Wednesday’s quarterfinals.

“It was not the fall. It was not particularly the fall. It was just, you know, a little bit of fatigue, a little bit of back,” he said. “Nothing major. But there are a couple of things that have surfaced, so to say, you know, after a match like this.

“We’ll see tomorrow how the body reacts, but I’m confident I can recover and I can be ready for next one.”