MELBOURNE, Australia – The tennis court turns into a fun house mirror when the player on the net is Hsieh Su-Wei, the queen of the overhead drop shot, whose nasty turns, clever angles and two-handed shots from either side can rattle her opponents.
Naomi Osaka, a three-time Grand Slam champion, sighed audibly on Sunday when she was informed that her reward for saving two match points against Garbiñe Muguruza was a meeting with Hsieh, who secured her place in the quarter-finals while Osaka was around the solution to the problem fought that was Muguruza.
“She’s one of those players who for me, if it was a video game, would want to choose her character just to play,” said Osaka, the 2019 champion. “Because my mind is the decisions she makes when she does is on the field, cannot fathom. “
Osaka, 23, added, “They aren’t fun to play, but they are really fun to see.”
35-year-old Hsieh is more successful in doubles, where she and her partner Barbora Strycova arrived as top seeds in Melbourne Park and were eliminated in the second round. As a three-time Grand Slam champion in doubles, Hsieh had never reached the quarter-finals in singles in 37 previous Grand Slam singles main drawing games.
“She will probably crush me on the square,” said Hsieh cheerfully. “I try to play my game, do my job and see what happens.”
In her lunchtime game on Tuesday, played in bright sunshine, Hsieh scored three breakpoints in the first set. She was unable to convert either of them and after tearing her way out of those tight spots Osaka scored a 6-2, 6-2 win in 66 minutes.
Hsieh has a calm, happy face, but behind the smile lurks a steely competitor. She has played against Osaka five times, and four of the games went three sets, including Hsieh’s only win, in the third round in Miami in 2019 when Osaka was number 1 in the world.
When asked what makes playing Hsieh such a challenge, Osaka said, “Have you seen her play?” She laughed. “It’s like ‘What?'”
She added: “I know that I have to expect everything for myself when I play her.”
The showdown between Hsieh from Taiwan and Osaka from Japan is a study of contrasts. Osaka creates pace and Hsieh redirects it. Osaka is a marketing magnet who added Louis Vuitton, Tag Heuer and Workday to their advertising portfolio ahead of the Australian Open. Hsieh has no sponsors, partly by design.
“I’d rather just stay,” said Hsieh, whose tournament routine for shopping for discounted tennis apparel was turned upside down by the nationwide lockdown introduced last week.
As embodied by Osaka, the power play is in vogue. But Hsieh’s more sophisticated style will never go out of style. She is an artist who turns conventions upside down with an unusual vision that gives the courtyard its shape, just as a Bundt pan gives shape to the dough poured into it.
“I think she has incredible hands and incredible eyes,” said Serena Williams’ coach Patrick Mouratoglou. “She sees the ball very early, sees and expects a lot.”
That is why it has such economy of movement, he added, “and why it is so difficult to play.”
For the past three weeks, Andrew Whittington, who reached the semi-finals in men’s doubles at the 2017 Australian Open and cracked the top 200 in singles, has taken on the difficult task of preparing the clever Hsieh for their games.
On a sunny Monday on Court 17, hard against the tram rails on the eastern edge of the property, Whittington spent nearly an hour feeding Hsieh the hard, flat, and well-placed serves that are Osaka’s signature.
Hseh’s trainer, Paul McNamee, instructed Whittington not to withhold anything. After Hsieh failed to get her racquet backhand with a ball, McNamee pushed her way over to Hsieh and said that she would see Osaka add a lot to it.
Hsieh nodded seriously. Seconds later she lifted a ball off the field with her bat, turned her back on the net, and shot a rainbow without looking at Whittington, who could only laugh.
Describing Hsieh as a free spirit, McNamee said, “You don’t want to box that spirit. You have to let it rise and be free. “
With a laugh, McNamee added, “I’ve learned a lot about the joy of silence when I’ve worked with Su-Wei.”
During the final minutes of the hour-long training session, Whittington pitched from Hsieh, including some who were sneaky. He was better prepared for it than for the question she tossed him towards the end of the exercise.
“Is my serve very slow?” She said.
It was the rare case that she wasn’t joking. Sensing Hsieh’s vulnerability, Whittington moved quickly to reassure her that her serve was okay. Like the rest of the arrows in her quiver, it’s deceptively sharp. Hsieh put 71 percent of her first serves in the tournament into play.
Hsieh’s authenticity, her innocence is “what makes her unique and great to work with,” said Whittington.
Whittington brought more tennis rackets than Hsieh, who usually travels with one. The ball finds the sweet spot on her racket with such regularity, McNamee explained that Hsieh has not broken a string for three years.
Hsieh is an entertainer who swings her bat like a magic prop. She is sorry that the ban will keep fans out until Wednesday – and maybe longer.
“I think I’ll just stay the same, enjoy, try to be positive,” she said. “If I don’t win, I hope the quarantine will end very soon so I can have some fun.”
Even if Osaka gets away with the win, she doubts it will be fun. In the third round of the Australian Open 2019, Osaka Hsieh defeated 5: 7, 6: 4, 6: 1.
It’s not a pleasant memory.
“I just remember having so many emotions just because I felt like there weren’t many things that I could control while playing them,” Osaka said.
It is Hsieh’s greatest strength. She can make the best and most powerful players feel helpless, and for a few games in the first set on Tuesday, she had Osaka back on her heels.