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Kazakh Queen: From Almaty to Guangzhou, Diyas delivers on promise

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Kazakhstan No. 1 ZARINA DIYAS is now Asia’s No. 2 and World No. 34 following a breakthrough year in the Grand Slams and a runner-up finish in October’s Japan Open. And she’s only just turned 21.

 

November 3, 2014: Born in Almaty, brought up in Prague and now based in Guangzhou, Zarina Diyas has taken a roundabout route to becoming Kazakhstan No. 1 and Asia’s No. 2, sitting behind only China’s Peng Shuai among active players.

 

However, her journey has paid off in a breakthrough 2014 season in which the soft-spoken, five-foot eight-inch Kazakh climbed from World No. 163 in early January to a career-high 34 on October 13 – five days before turning 21 while competing in the Rising Stars Invitational at the WTA Finals in Singapore.

 

Her season started sensationally when she qualified for her first Grand Slam main draw at the Australian Open, then reached the third round before Simona Halep halted her Melbourne run. Diyas qualified automatically for Roland Garros with a ranking of 86, but drew fifth seed Petra Kvitova and lost in the first round.

 

Still only 20, she then enjoyed her best Grand Slam result by reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon before again coming up short against Halep, the third seed and eventual semi-finalist.

 

In August, Diyas had since overtaken Yaroslava Shvedova as Kazakhstan No. 1 when she competed at the US Open, overcoming a fervently patriotic crowd to beat teen sensation Cici Bellis in the second round before losing to eventual semi-finalist Ekaterina Makarova.

 

Diyas beat CiCi Bellis to reach the third round of the US Open, having reached the third round of the Australian Open and the fourth round of Wimbledon.

Diyas, then 20, beat CiCi Bellis to reach the third round of the US Open, having reached the third round of the Australian Open and the fourth round of Wimbledon. Photo: AFP.

Diyas then reached her first WTA final at October’s Japan Open in Osaka, even holding two set points against Sam Stosur in a tiebreak before losing 7-6(7), 6-3.

 

Cool, calm, collected and quiet, Diyas is fast delivering on the potential that she first showed on a global stage at the 2010 Kremlin Open in Moscow, where – after just turning 17 – she beat then World No. 7 Jelena Jankovic to reach the quarters of the WTA Premier event.

 

Today, Diyas is one of the few top players representing Kazakhstan who was actually born in the country. Shvedova and Galina Voskoboeva, the country’s top two at the start of this year, were both born in Moscow and took up the offer to play for Kazakhstan in 2008, while Moscow-born teenager Yulia Putintseva followed suit two years ago.

 

Yet even though Diyas was born in Almaty, even she’s not a product of her country’s tennis system, having picked up the sport in the Czech Republic after moving to Prague at the age of six with her parents. After a decade in Prague, her mum has since returned to Almaty, while Diyas is now based in Guangzhou in southern China, where she trains under Alan Ma along with the likes of Peng Shuai, Zheng Saisai and Taiwan No. 1 Rendy Lu Yen-hsun, Asia’s second-ranked men’s player.

 

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Diyas has flown under the radar. Portraits: SportAsia.

Interview SportAsia

 

You were born in Kazakhstan, but moved to the Czech Republic with your parents when you were six. Which other players did you come across during your training?

I started to learn tennis after I moved to the Czech Republic and trained in Prague. There was Nicole Vaidisova, but she already retired (in 2010; the former World No. 7 announced her comeback in September), Lucie Hradecka and Michaella Krajicek. [Tomas] Berdych is from another city, not from Prague.

 

I know Petra Kvitova because she’s from Czech so we speak Czech.

 

You’re now based in Guangzhou, training under Alan Ma. What led to your move to China?

I met him at a tournament in China about two years ago, we talked and I started to work with him in Guangzhou. There are great facilities there and it’s really good for training.

 

Zheng Saisai and Peng Shuai are also training there and there’s Lu Yen-hsun from Taiwan, the ATP player. There’s also some juniors. We have a lot of players there, so it’s really good. I’m enjoying it, although I’m often travelling for tournaments. And when I have some time off, I often go back home to Kazakhstan. My mum lives there.

 

Have you learnt any Chinese?

No, not yet because it’s a tough language. But I definitely want to learn because the more languages I know the better.

 

What’s the tennis scene in Kazakhstan like?

Tennis is really growing in Kazakhstan now. We’ve built a lot of tennis courts and facilities. A lot of kids are playing tennis now and people are really interested, so I think it’s really growing. I didn’t really go back to Kazakhstan (after Prague), but I love my country and I’m happy to play for Kazakhstan.

 

Diyas with fellow Rising Stars Shelby Rogers, Monica Puig and Zheng Saisai, her training partner in Guangzhou.

Diyas with fellow Rising Stars Shelby Rogers, Monica Puig and Zheng Saisai, her training partner in Guangzhou.

Did you look up to any Kazakh tennis players when you were growing up?

No, not really, because we didn’t have any good players in Kazakhstan. I liked Kim Clijsters and Martina Hingis, so I was always looking out for them.

 

What do you think are the strongest parts of your game?

I think my serve is strong and also my backhand. But I think in tough moments I stay calm. I stay strong. My mental side in the difficult times of matches is good.

 

You showed your cool in the US Open when you beat CiCi Bellis on a crowded Court 17, packed with fans cheering the American teenager. What was the atmosphere like?

It was very tough because there were a lot of fans and she’s a young American teenager so everyone’s behind her, cheering for her, so it was very tough. But, I mean, it was a good match. Especially in the third set, I really stayed focused and strong mentally, and decided the match (6-3, 0-6, 6-2).

 

Diyas tweeted this picture after meeting Marina Navratilova in Singapore.

Diyas tweeted this picture after meeting Marina Navratilova in Singapore.

The US Open was the third time you reached at least the third round of a Grand Slam this year. Until January, you had never even played in the main draw of a Grand Slam, so what led to this breakthrough season?

Last year I was ranked 200-something and I really worked hard. I had a good pre-season last year in China. And also my coach Alan Ma and my fitness trainer Stefano Baraldo, we worked really hard and thanks to them I had a great season.

 

In Australia, I got through the qualifiers and then I played well in other tournaments, so I got into the majors through my ranking. I reached the third round in Australia, fourth round of Wimbledon and third round of the US Open.

 

Out of all the Grand Slams, which one do you like the most?

Wimbledon. It’s such a great tournament. You can feel the tradition. It’s different from the other Grand Slams, the atmosphere. I love this tournament. I think reaching the fourth round in Wimbledon was my best result, because it’s a Grand Slam. I lost to Halep. She’s playing great and she has had a great season.

 

Have you met any of your heroes at any of the Grand Slams?

I met Kim Clijsters and Evonne Goolagong. I saw all these legends, but I didn’t really meet with them, like talk. I didn’t have the chance to talk.

 

Diyas enjoying media attention at the WTA Finals in Singapore in October.

Diyas enjoying media attention at the WTA Finals in Singapore in October.

In October, you finished runner-up to Sam Stosur at the Japan Open in Osaka. It was your first WTA final, but you started well, leading 5-3 …

Ya, I had the chance in the first set especially, but Sam is a great player. She has a lot of experience so she played really well there. But I was close and even had two set points in the [first-set] tiebreak.

 

Now you’ve done well in the Grand Slams and you look ahead to the next year, what are your ambitions?

I want to stay healthy first, because I’m always worried about injuries. And I want to reach the top 30.

 

That’s it?

Take it slowly. I don’t want to say. If I was in the top 20, it’s even better, of course.

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