Saturday, January 20, 2018

Meeting Maria

When I heard my favorite tennis player Maria Sharapova was going to start her 2018 season with the tournament in Shenzhen in early January, I felt a trip up there was in order. So with the help of my friend, I bought the ticket for the game and with a bit of a minor drama (had to fight back from one-set down in the previous round), she made it through to the Quarter Final, which was the round I was attending.

Post from RICOH THETA. - Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

I only found out after I bought my ticket that the tournament was not held in downtown Shenzhen but in the suburb town of Longgang at a stadium built for the Universiade Games a few years back. A longer commute than I expected, but thanks to the efficient public transportation system only built in the last decade or so, I arrived at the stadium a full hour early before the matches began. Just when I thought it was a stupid idea to get up so early and came over ahead of time, I walked into the stadium and saw Maria practicing in the center court with her coach, so that stupid idea was not so stupid after all, having an extra session to see her play on court. That plus I realized my seat was at the front row right in the middle behind the players’ seats – that’s the perfect spot for getting an autograph (and I did!)

All four Quarter Final matches were scheduled on the same day and turned out all of them were quite exciting to watch. But of course the highlight was the game between Maria Sharapova and Zarina Diyas, a Kazakh player ranked around 60 in the world. I was surprised there’s such a large group of Maria Sharapova’s supporters in attendance and they were holding up banner and flags, screaming at every point, cheering her on like this is her home field. And she played well that day, winning in straight set 6:3, 6:3 in slightly more than an hour, though the game was closer than the score-line suggested. And with my prime seat I managed to take quite a number of nice pictures, and took home with the match program with Maria Sharapova’s autograph! It’s almost like Christmas came early this year!

I did stay on to watch most of the rest of the games. Right after Maria Sharapova’s game it’s the current number one Simona Halep making her appearance against the young Aryna Sabalenka. It’s extremely rare for tournament of this level (Tier 3, or 2 levels below the Grand Slam) featuring one former and one current number one in the draw so I considered myself lucky to watch both played on the same day. And Simona Halep had a much easier game, finishing her opponent off in a straight set as well.

The last game was a match-up between two Czech players, Katerina Siniakova against Kristyna Pliskova. I have seen Pliskova played once at the Hong Kong Open 3 years ago when she partnered with her identical twin sister Karolina Pliskova (another former number one player) at the doubles game, but this evening Siniakova was far superior. With the way Siniakova have been playing this might be her breakthrough year – let’s wait and see how she does at the Australian Open coming up later this month.

Originally I was planning to stay over for dinner nearby – after all the town of Longgang is famous for their chicken dishes – but as it was getting late by the time the games finished I scrapped the plan and went straight back to Hong Kong. It seemed a bit anti-climactic that my busy January travel schedule - with three trips planned – began with a simple day trip just north of our border, but for sure it’s the one that I was most excited about and one I wouldn’t miss for the world. Good game Maria, and it's a dream came true to have finally seen her play.

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