BEIJING, China - China’s Wang Yafan burst onto the scene at this year’s Miami Open, but she’d been knocking on the door for a long time.
After ending the 2017 season ranked just inside the Top 200, Wang cut her ranking by more than 100 spots to make her Top 100 debut. She had been on the cusp in 2015, 2016 and again in 2017, but nerves and tough draws kept her from making her big breakthrough.
That all changed in Miami, when she went on a tear to reach the Round of 16 from qualifying - her best ever result at a Premier Mandatory - with wins over Marketa Vondrousova, Carla Suarez Navarro and Alison Riske. She backed it up the next week, too, reaching her first WTA-level final at Zhengzhou to solidify herself as a force to be reckoned with.
In an exclusive interview with wtatennis.com, Wang opens up on her emotional week in Miami, and shares the ‘never-say-die’ mentality that keeps her on the rise.
1. Wang notched back-to-back Top 50 wins for the first time in her career at Miami, capping a career-best performance that culminated in her big rankings breakthrough.
Wang came into the Miami Open ranked World No.125 and, for the fourth time in her career, on the cusp of a Top 100 debut.
As the she began to rack up the victories - first over the tricky Marketa Vondrousova and then a straight-sets stunner over No.27 seed Carla Suarez Navarro - she was closing in on the breakthrough moment… one that had slipped out of her grasp time and time again.
Here’s how Wang describes, in her own words, the roller coaster of emotions she experienced in her 4-6 6-3 7-6(4), third-round upset over Alison Riske - the moment which sealed her Top 100 breakthrough:
“At the beginning of the match, I was very nervous because I knew that this one was very important to me: if I won, I could get into Top 100,” she recalled. “Although I had hovered around 100 or so in the past few years, I was always short of the goal.
“Last year also saw me caught by illness and not in the state of training and competition. For one time I even thought that I could no longer engage in my favorite sport of tennis. So this match is very important to me.
“With an eager heart to win, I could not focus on the game and made quite a lot of blunders and I lost in the first set. I kept telling myself that I should calm down and put the idea of winning out of my mind. In the second set I was less anxious - I played one ball after another and my points grew. I found the tempo of the game and my performance was a lot more stable.
“I have to say that my opponent played well and hard right into the tie-breaker. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t back down, I couldn’t be scared. Even if I lost, I couldn’t do so in a passive mood. I told myself I wanted to win, my goal was there and I was going to take the initiative. I had never had this state of mind before. I am very happy that I did it in the end. I also achieved my goal for many years: to reach the Top 100 rankings. This is really a match that I will recall to mind time and again my whole life.”
2. She’s reached a career-high ranking of World No.80, but she’s still making bigger goals for herself - on and off the court.
Wang broke the Top 100 after her great week in Miami, and steadily climbed up the rankings to peak at No.80 during Strasbourg.
The Chinese player leapfrogged Wang Qiang, the promising Duan Ying Ying and Zheng Saisai to sit as her country’s third-highest ranked player - but she’s still got a ways to go before she’s satisfied.
“The goal I set for myself is to be among the World Top 50,” she said. “Of course, this is not an easy task, but as I said earlier, I like challenges. I understand my strengths. I will also keep a good state of mind and move forward step by step.”
3. That ‘good state of mind’ is a tenacious, ‘never-say-die’ mentality - and it shows in her tennis.
“The goal I set for myself is not the same as it is with material comforts and money,” Wang added. “The process of hard work and overcoming difficulties to ultimately reach the goal brings great satisfaction and self-realization!
“In addition, there is a lot of uncertainties in the sport of tennis. I’m a never-say-die kind of person in and out. I love challenges and I hate the feeling of losing. In tennis, you always have the opportunity to turn the tables, as long as there’s one more chance to play.
“So I always tell myself that in the court I must be ready at all times, be firm in my own convictions, steadily move toward the set goals, and bravely confront every challenge.”
Her mentality shows on court: Wang won five three-set matches in 2018 - three of them from a set down. She was also one game away from defeating Angelique Kerber in the Miami Open fourth round, falling after a nearly three-hour battle.
4. Meet the team:
Whether Top 10 or Top 100, it takes a village to create a professional tennis player. Currently training at the Beijing Tennis 1123 Club, Wang counts a familiar surname among her multinational coaching team.
“My coach Alejandro Dulko is very important to me,” she said “He is the brother and coach of Gisela Dulko, who was 26th in the world. He took me on from last year’s winter training. Apart from the lessons of tactics, he also gives me great psychological support.
“The most important person for the team is Ms. Yi Pingyi, who cares for us like a mother in every possible way. I am really grateful to her. I also have a fitness trainer from Taiwan.”
5. Wang caught the travel bug early, and the rest was history.
Initially doing gymnastics as a young child, Wang realized early on that she was more interested in tennis and life outside of the gym. She began her tennis career practicing with students at an amateur sports club and quickly climbed up the ranks until she began competing abroad.
It wasn’t until Wang won her first ITF singles tournament, a 10K event in Indonesia, that the thought of become a professional tennis player entered her mind.
“Every week, there would be a new tournament for me to play; this was what I enjoyed the most,” Wang told wtatennis.com. “With the change of location, every tournament was the same and different at the same time. I was full of anticipation and always looked forward to new challenges.
“Because the tour took place in various cities, I was able to have access to different customs, cultures and acquaint myself with different people. My horizon was thus broadened. This was far beyond what I had expected when I first started playing tennis.”
6. She’s dreaming of driving home a Porsche from Stuttgart.
When asked what tournament she’d love to play for the first time, Wang didn’t hesitate to name the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix - and it’s easy to see why.
“First of all, I have never been to Germany and would like to see the scenery there,” she said. “My coach told me that to compete in the Stuttgart game would be an experience for a lifetime, because the scenery is good and all the arrangements are of the highest standards.
“Most importantly, there’s the opportunity to ride in a sports car and even drive one home.”
Quick hits with Wang Yafan:
Tennis idol growing up?
“I’m amazed by the way he controls his emotions. Even if he failed to deliver the performance, you couldn’t tell it judging by his movements. This is also what I need to learn from him.”
Best friend on tour?
“She is like a big sister to me.”
More frequently used app?
“You can do basically everything with it in China, like contacting your friends, eating out, going shopping, and searching data - you’re able to keep updated about what your friends are doing and be in touch with them, even though you’re thousands of miles apart.”
What sport would you play if not tennis?
“I am interested in sports with a sense of speed. For example, skiing is one of the possible options. It must be great fun to sprint in the beautiful snow.”
Bubble tea and Chinese food.
“I can feel happy all day with just one cup of bubble tea!”
“I hope to travel to the Maldives after this year’s season ends, because I like the beach. I used to read about all sorts of beautiful sceneries, and I hope to have the chance to visit this place personally this year.”
Photos courtesy of Wang Yafan. Quotes translated by Viviana Wang.