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AO qualifying: Major goal within reach for Japanese duo

  • Dan Imhoff

It's tough to get a look-in in Japan when any small inroads follow in the imposing shadows of Naomi Osaka's and Kei Nishikori's achievements.

The steady-blooming Mai Hontama even cracks a laugh at the mention of her compatriots' feats at Melbourne Park over the years.

MORE: All the scores from Day 4 of qualifying for AO 2022

With appearances in only three tour-level events before this week, it stands to reason the unassuming 22-year-old is not yet a household name back home.

After a breakout run to the quarterfinals in her WTA debut in Chicago last October, the world No.149 has made further inroads this week.

She stands one win from her Grand Slam main draw debut. 

Hontama advanced to within one win of a main draw debut on Thursday

Don't expect her to get too carried away just yet, let alone if she does join defending champion Osaka in the women's singles draw next week.

"Yeah I'm very happy. Of course it would be a dream come true for me, but the next-round opponent is a player I lost to last week, so I have to be careful and try my best," Hontama said via a translator.

That next opponent is in-form Chinese 23-year-old Zheng Qinwen, a Melbourne Summer Set 1 semifinalist last week.

But Hontama has cause for belief. In Chicago, as a qualifier, she breezed past former world No.4 Caroline Garcia and Ash Barty's US Open conqueror, Shelby Rogers, en route to the quarterfinals.

It was a whirlwind debut, which eventually ended at the hands of two-time Grand Slam champion, Garbine Muguruza.

"That is a tournament I became confident (that) I'm going to be good enough to be at a top level and now I still need to level up my game, but I feel like I can be in top 100," Hontama said.

With 15th-seeded countrywoman Nao Hibino already through to the final round, Hontama – the fourth-ranked Japanese woman – and Taro Daniel followed suit on Thursday.

Hontama bagged a 6-0 6-4 victory over former junior Australian Open champion Liang En Shuo, while seventh seed Daniel booked a clash in final-round men's qualifying against a third-straight Italian following a 6-3 6-1 result over Gian Marco Moroni. 

Daniel has started 2022 with strong form in Adelaide and AO qualifying

His compatriot's steady progress – she began last season outside the top 300 – had not gone unnoticed.

The 28-year-old Daniel, a former world No.64, first came across Hontama during the Covid-19 pandemic tour hiatus in 2020, at a Japanese exhibition tennis event.

"She plays a very Japanese game, very flat, but my impression was that she's pretty tough," Daniel said. 

"She moves well, she moves better than most of the other girls, I think. That's definitely her strength and she's probably tougher in certain ways, mentally."

Following his biggest triumph over world No.1 Novak Djokovic in the second round at Indian Wells in 2018, Daniel secured his first tour silverware in Istanbul. 

It hasn't been the smoothest sailing since, but a win over rising Italian teenager Lorenzo Musetti in Adelaide last week came as a welcome start to 2022.

"I had a really good off-season, not just in terms of preparation, but mentally was able to take enough time off," Daniel said. 

"Finally things were open in Japan … (I was) kind of having fun being with my friends and that was really important for me mentally. Just feeling pretty fresh and excited to start the season. I think that's helping start the year better this time."

Like Hontama, Daniel was grounded in his outlook ahead of the season's opening major, as he stood one match from his 17th Grand Slam main draw berth.

"I think the management of all these expectations and also what I've done in the past is something very difficult for me in the last few years," he said ahead of his next match against Salvatore Caruso

"In the back of my mind I always felt like I deserve to be in the main draw, but then I'm always in this borderline of the main draw or in the qualies, which is kind of a tough place to be in in terms of rankings, hard to plan. Right now, I'm just kind of learning to accept wherever I am and kind of enjoy things as they are."

In other second-round qualifying results, men's second seed Norbert Gombos eked out a 6-0 3-6 7-6[6] victory over Argentine Renzo Olivo. There were wins too for 10th seed Liam Broady, 20th seed Tomas Machac, Matt Ebden, Roman Safiullin and Jesper de Jong.

Women's sixth seed Lesia Tsurenko closed on her 11th Australian Open main draw with a 6-3 7-5 ledger against Asia Muhammad, while second seed Martina Trevisan, 17th seed Jule Niemeier and 19th seed Olga Govortsova advanced.