Day 11 Diary: Japan's Oda chasing No.1 spot

 - Chris Oddo

The 17-year-old is flying the flag in the men's wheelchair event after Kunieda's retirement

Tokito Oda, men's wheelchair singles, quarter-final, Roland-Garros 2023© Andre Ferreira/FFT

It's a feast for fans across the grounds at Roland-Garros 2023 as many of the events head towards the sharp end.

The semi-final match-ups in the singles are almost decided, and across wheelchairs and juniors, title hopes are coming into focus.
Here's a look at some of the things you may have missed...

Top ranking on the line

Japan's Tokito Oda is next in line for the Japanese in the men's singles wheelchair competition. After making his Grand Slam debut last year in Paris as a 16-year-old, he's back in the City of Light hoping for bigger things.

The No.2 seed, who reached his first major final this year in Australia, is the highest-ranked Japanese male in the wheelchair competition, and could become the new world No.1 if he wins the title this weekend.

“Winning a Grand Slam has been one of my biggest dreams since I was a kid,” he said on Tuesday in Paris. “I'm really excited to come here, this tournament is on clay courts and in my favourite country.”

On Wednesday, Oda reached his first Roland-Garros semi-final with a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 victory over Dutchman Ruben Spaargaren, coming through a gruelling three-setter.

"I believe in myself and I believe in my tennis," Oda told rolandgarros.com when asked how he came through a tough battle under the hot sun on Court 13. "I believe in what I want to do and what I need to do, and I was focused on only those things."

Tokito Oda, first round, men's wheelchair singles, Roland-Garros 2023 © Loïc Wacziak/FFT

How is Oda a different player and person from a year ago?

"My ranking is growing," he said. "If I win this tournament I will be No.1 in the world, so it's a little bit of pressure for me."

Now the leader of Japanese men's wheelchair tennis after this year's retirement of the celebrated Shingo Kunieda, Oda says he owes a lot to the 50-time Grand Slam champion: he's playing with him in his heart and mind.

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"I've learned a lot of things from him," Oda said. "Not only about tennis. How to be on tour, how to stay consistent and win at these high-level tournaments - I've learned so many things from him. If I win this tournament I want to also do it for him. He is a legend to me and he is like a teacher for me.

"I'm sad that he's not here, the feeling is much different from last year."

Learner's life lessons

A blockbuster showdown on Court No.6 between this year's Australian Open boys' finalists yielded an important win for American Learner Tien. The southern Californian came through a tense first set before No.2-seeded Belgian Alexander Blockx was forced to retire due to injury.

"I felt like I got myself up for the match pretty well," Tien said after avenging January's high-stakes defeat to the Belgian.

"I feel like I have been playing better and better each match and I'm trying to take that forward. Although we didn't play a full match I felt like in the portion that we played I was playing well and I'm happy with how I was playing."

A thoughtful young man, Tien opened up to reporters about his feelings for the sport, telling them that there were times when he wasn't sure if he wanted to pursue a career in tennis.

"I didn't know for a long time, actually," said Tien, who goes to University of Southern California. "There were some ups and downs - my love for tennis wavered at some points during my life."

Tien, who reached the boys' quarter-final at Wimbledon last year in addition to his final in Melbourne, is the 21st-ranked junior in the ITF Tour. He says with the help of his family, who never pressured him to compete, he rediscovered his passion for the game long ago, and has been on the rise ever since.

"Over the past few years I feel like my enjoyment and my love for tennis has really spiked," he said.

Tien will face Brazil's Joao Fonseca in the boys' quarter-finals.

Learner Tien, second round, boys's singles, Roland-Garros 2023© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

Ferrero: Alcaraz ready for Djokovic showdown

On Wednesday in Paris, Juan Carlos Ferrero, coach of Carlos Alcaraz, helped pique our interest in Friday's heavily-anticipated clash with 22-time Grand Slam champion Novak Djokovic.

It turns out that both he and his charge have been looking forward to facing the Serbian legend from the day the draw came out, just like the rest of us.

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"I think both players are maybe the best in the world right now," he said of the pair's impending semi-final, which will be their second career meeting, after Alcaraz beat the Serb in Madrid last year.

"Novak has the experience to play these kind of matches more than Carlos, of course, but at the same time Carlos really wants to play that match. He was really looking forward to that match since the beginning."

Self-belief certainly won't be an issue for the surging Spaniard, despite the obvious gulf in experience.

"Carlos believes a lot in himself, and he believes that he can beat Novak," said Ferrero, who won Roland-Garros 20 years ago. "Then we'll see. I think they both have an amazing level."

Carlos Alcaraz, Juan Carlos Ferrero, practice, Roland-Garros 2023© Nicolas Gouhier/FFT

Jabeur can relate to Haddad Maia

Ons Jabeur knows a thing or two about trailblazing, and the Tunisian, who has carried the flag for both her country, the Arab world, and Africa, heaped praise upon Beatriz Haddad Maia for becoming the first Brazilian woman to reach a Roland-Garros semi-final in the Open Era on Wednesday.

"She probably played longer than me, but she's a beast, and I wish her all the best. I mean, honestly, what she's doing for... I feel like my story and her story are a little bit similar. I'm very happy for her and for Brazil, and hopefully she can do much more for her country," Jabeur said after her defeat at the hands of Haddad Maia on Wednesday on Court Philippe-Chatrier.

Ons Jabeur, Beatriz Haddad Maia, Roland-Garros 2023, quarter-final© Corinne Dubreuil/FFT

The Tunisian elaborated by drawing parallels between herself and the No.14 seed, explaining the importance of Haddad Maia's achievement for the people of Brazil.

"I believe history-wise, of course, Brazil had more players than in Tunisia," she said. "But I understand where she's coming from. I understand the pressure that she has, but she's handling it very well, and she's doing a lot more in her country to inspire more and more younger girls."

Jabeur said that Haddad Maia's win is also a victory for the women's game as a whole.

"Also, she's doing great for women's tennis in general. Not just for Brazil, but in the world," she said. "Honestly, I wish her all the best. I think she beat me today. I'm not sure that I should say more good things about her. I honestly love Maia a lot, and probably the last two matches that she won, I cried with her."

Iga's happy returns

When it comes to service breaks, nobody in Paris has been more ruthless than Iga Swiatek. The Polish juggernaut has engineered 25 service breaks from her 34 return games over five rounds in Paris. That's a whopping 74 per cent of return games won from Swiatek, who broke four times from nine return games during her 6-4, 6-2 win over Coco Gauff on Wednesday.

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