Kuwait Times

Osaka not needed as Japan reach BJK Cup finals for the first time

Emerging teen powers Australia past Mexico into BJK Cup finals


TOKYO: Naomi Osaka was not required to play after team-mate Nao Hibino sent Japan to their first Billie Jean King Cup finals Saturday in a 3-1 qualifying win over Kazakhstan. Former world number one and fourtime Grand Slam winner Osaka was appearing at the competitio­n for the first time since 2020 and won her opening singles game on Friday.

But she did not need to play a second time after Hibino clinched Japan’s spot in November’s finals in Seville with a hard-fought 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (9/7) win over world number 50 Yulia Putintseva. “I didn’t play today but it’s been an absolute pleasure to be a part of this team,” Osaka said in an on-court interview.

“Nao, you saved us”

Osaka, who returned to tennis late last year after giving birth, was appearing in Japan for the first time since playing at the Pan Pacific Open in September 2022. She beat Putintseva 6-2, 7-6 (7/5) on Friday, hitting 15 aces and no double faults to stake Japan to a 2-0 lead.

Hibino said Osaka had brought presents for her Japan teammates and had been an important presence in the dressing room. But it was Hibino who took centre stage on the second day’s play, fending off four straight match points for Putintseva before coming back to win the third-set tiebreaker.

“I started wondering if it was OK for me to win my match — there were a lot of fans looking forward to watching Osaka,” laughed world number 79 Hibino. “It was mixed emotions but I really wanted to clinch the win.” It was Hibino’s second singles victory of the tie after dispatchin­g Anna Danilina 6-1, 6-0 in under an hour on the opening day.

“I was playing against someone who I have struggled against so I wasn’t sure if I could win,” said Hibino. “But the crowd really raised the voltage towards the end of the final set and I wanted to experience what it would be like to win in that atmosphere.”

Kazakhstan salvaged a consolatio­n point from the doubles dead rubber when Danilina and Zhibek Kulambayev­a beat Shuko Aoyama and Ena Shibahara 7-6 (9/7), 3-6, 11-9. Kazakhstan were without world number four Elena Rybakina, who lost in the final of the Miami Open last month.

Meanwhile, Australia surged into the Billie Jean King Cup finals Saturday with a 4-0 victory over Mexico, handing Grand Slam champion Samantha Stosur a winning start to her reign as captain. The seven-time champions took a commanding 2-0 lead into day two at Brisbane’s Pat Rafter Arena, allowing Stosur to rest Arina Rodionova and hand a debut to 18-year-old Taylah Preston.

She seized the opportunit­y with both hands, sweeping past the experience­d Marcela Zacarias, 12 years her senior, 6-1, 6-1 to put the tie beyond Mexico’s reach. Daria Saville and Ellen Perez rubbed salt in the wounds by beating Mexican duo Jessica Hinojosa Gomez and Maria Fernanda Navarro 6-3, 6-1 in the dead rubber doubles. “I’m just trying not to cry at the moment, to be honest,” said Preston.

“It’s a very, very amazing feeling and so grateful for the opportunit­y from Sam and the rest of the team to be able to play and close out the tie.” Zacarias was bidding to bank her 22nd Billie Jean King Cup match win and claim sole ownership of the record by a Mexican player. But she was no match for the emerging teenager, who made her WTA Tour main-draw debut at the 2022 Rosmalen Grass Court Championsh­ips as a qualifier before an injury derailed her progress. An aggressive Preston powered through the first set in 37 minutes and kept the momentum going with a break for 2-1 in the second set.

Zacarias rolled her ankle midway through the first set and there was no way back as she struggled with the injury, in tears after being beaten. Stosur, who was pivotal as a player to Australia reaching the tournament decider in 2019 and 2022, said she always had faith in Preston. “What a performanc­e today, incredible for a debut,” she said. “Obviously very happy to get the win here. “I just said to Tay, ‘we’re all behind you, we all believe in you, enjoy the moment and play the way we know you can play’.” While Australia booked their place at November’s finals in Seville, Mexico must now contest the playoffs in the same month.

 ?? ?? TOKYO: Japan’s Nao Hibino hits a return to Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva during their women’s singles match of the Billie Jean Cup tennis qualifying tie between Japan and Kazakhstan in Tokyo on April 13, 2024. – AFP
TOKYO: Japan’s Nao Hibino hits a return to Kazakhstan’s Yulia Putintseva during their women’s singles match of the Billie Jean Cup tennis qualifying tie between Japan and Kazakhstan in Tokyo on April 13, 2024. – AFP

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