The last Premier Mandatory event of the WTA season takes place this week in Beijing with an incredible field of players chasing 1,000 points in the battle for the WTA Finals in Shenzhen
During tournaments, the first match is always the worst for me Naomi Osaka
A notable absentee, however, is 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams, who is most probably out now for the rest of the season.
As was expected after the US Open, the 38-year-old has taken a long break and it is unlikely for her to play again before 2020, happy with the progress she made in the first 9 months of the season after competing in 2 Grand Slam finals.
The American veteran is still ranked among the best players in the world 2 decades after she cracked the top-10 for the first time, embracing light schedule and competing at only 8 tournaments, which makes her ranking position even more respectable.
Her conquerer in New York, Bianca Andreescu, returns to the tour for the first time since her US Open triumph, joining Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka, Simona Halep, Elina Svitolina, and other players in the China Open draw.
Karolina Pliskova, the World No 2, has already lost, to 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
Safely through her first round is Osaka, the No 4 seed, who extended her winning streak to 5, kicking off her campaign with a 6-3 7-6(5) defeat of Jessica Pegula in an hour and 31 minutes on Sunday.
In her first meeting with the American, Osaka dictated proceedings with her weight of shot throughout, maintaining a first serve winning percentage of 76% and striking 26 winners.
The Australian Open champion also showed off her nimbleness around the court at key moments in the opening set, twisting around to flick a winning pass en route to a first break for 3-1 and chasing down a Pegula drop-shot to pave the way to a 5-1 lead.
A tighter second set saw Osaka’s level dip as the former World No 1’s game began to leak mistakes.
With 7 unforced errors in the first set, the Toray Pan Pacific champion totalled 19 in the second as Pegula made more consistent inroads into the Osaka serve, forcing break points in consecutive games.
The 21-year-old American hung on, blitzing a backhand winner down the line to save the first and a un-returnable serve to fend off the second.
Indeed, protecting her serve well while pressuring Osaka with the depth of her returns, Pegula came within 2 points of forcing a decider at 5-4, 30-30.
The Japanese called on her power to escape danger, and immediately pounced to capture the Pegula serve for the first time in the set as the Washington champion lost control of her own groundstrokes.
Despite moments of carelessness, Osaka was able to summon her best tennis with her back to the wall, avoiding having to face set point with an 8th ace to seal the victory.
Osaka, who plays Andrea Petkovic of Germany next in Beijing, was disappointed that she was unable to replicate the form which won her the Pan Pacific Open in Japan a week ago.
“During tournaments, the first match is always the worst for me,” said the US-based star.
“But I was kind of expecting it to be better because I just played really well in Tokyo [actually Osaka].
“I don’t know, I thought it would carry on. I was a little bit frustrated that I felt my game wasn’t really where I left it.
“I just felt like today I was really riled up, not really sure why,” she added, also describing herself as ‘very stressed’ and ‘very nervous’.
“I also didn’t want to lose in the first round,” she said.
Osaka’s triumph in the Pan Pacific Open was her first trophy since her second consecutive Grand Slam win, at the Australian Open in January.
It was a bad day for past champions at the China Open, but another very good day for surging teenager Dayana Yastremska, who needed only 55 minutes to dismiss 2017 winner Caroline Garcia, 6-1 6-1.
Fresh off her maiden Premier quarter-final showing in Wuhan, the 19-year-old Ukrainian blitzed winners left and right to score her second win in as many meetings against Garcia in stark contrast to her first, a marathon victory in May’s Strasbourg final that, at two hours and 58 minutes, is the longest WTA title match of the season to date.
On Sunday, Yastremska found the lines on the biggest points to take a series of tightly contested games in the first set, and then, from 0-1 down in the second, accelerated towards the finishing line at high speed, repeatedly swatting away the Frenchwoman’s serve with no-holds-barred returning to rattle through 24 of the last 31 points of the match.
Also in a stingy mood was No 6 seed Simona Halep, who showed no sign of the lower back injury that had forced her to retire in the 3rd round of Wuhan last week while trailing Elena Rybakina.
The Wimbledon champion raced to a 6-1 6-1 victory over qualifier Rebecca Peterson in an hour and 11 minutes.
Halep was relentless in her refusal to relinquish control, encapsulated by a marathon 10-minute, 7-deuce hold for 4-1 in the second set that saw Peterson throw everything she had at the Romanian to no avail.
Elsewhere, World No 104 Christina McHale came out on top of a seesaw win over wildcard and 2-time champion Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-0 1-6 6-3, in an hour and 50 minutes, the American’s second Premier main draw upset as a qualifier in as many weeks following her defeat of Anastasija Sevastova in Wuhan.
The eliminations of Kuznetsova and Garcia mean that 3 of the 4 former Beijing winners in this year’s main draw have exited in the first round, with only defending champion Caroline Wozniacki remaining.
As the past champions fell, 2011 runner-up Andrea Petkovic survived against Jil Teichmann, who served for the opening set, but German qualifier Petkovic saved a set point before edging away for a 7-6(4) 6-3 win.
Meanwhile, Yulia Putintseva sped past qualifier Anna Blinkova 6-0 6-1 in just over an hour; while Wang Yafan asserted her authority in the Chinese pecking order to defeat 18-year-old compatriot and wildcard Wang Xinyu 6-1 6-2 in only 52 minutes.
Former World No 1 Venus Williams came from a break down in the 3rd set to maintain her dominant record over Wimbledon semi-finalist Barbora Strycova in an intriguing first-round clash of unseeded players, triumphing 6-3 4-6 7-5 in 2 hours and 31 minutes.
No 3 seed Elina Svitolina of Ukraine fought her way into the second round, coming back from the loss of a close first set to oust last year’s Beijing runner-up, Anastasija Sevastova of Latvia, 6-7(4) 6-1 6-2.
Svitolina got the short end of the stick in an opening frame that took over an hour, but re-grouped to ease through the final 2 sets of the clash and defeat the World No 19 Latvian for the 2nd time in their 3 meetings.
The Ukrainian finished the match with 31 winners to 28 unforced errors, and converted seven of her 12 break points and next faces home country favourite, Wang Yafan.