From sickly toddler to electric young tennis star, Vivian Yang is tracking towards her goal of making the world’s top 100.
New Zealand’s top junior tennis player, Vivian Yang, is already being compared to two-time Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka.
The just turned 15-year-old has her aggressive playing style and raw power to thank for that kudos. But she’s not necessarily comfortable with it.
“I feel like I’m not ready to be compared to her,” says the Year 11 Westlake Girls High student.
While Yang knows she’s still a fair bit off the former women’s number one – who was the first Asian player to hold the top spot – she’s still flattered to be likened to her. And she’s definitely working towards her standard.
By the end of this year, Yang, who has been competing as a junior (U18) since she was 13, wants to be ranked in the International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) top 100 juniors.
Those at the ITF’s elite level have the opportunity to compete in Junior Grand Slams – tournaments mirroring the prestigious main events. Her current ITF ranking is 353.
With the help of Matthew Alexander, Tennis NZ’s national development coach, Yang is working hard to be among the best.
Yang’s development is part of a drive by Tennis NZ to put players back in the world’s top 100.
Over the last two years, Yang has met the benchmarks that put her “on the trajectory of previous successful top 100 female athletes,” explains former Tennis NZ high performance director, Simon Rea, who’s now working in Australia.
“She also consistently displays a gritty perseverance which resembles something of a Kiwi Naomi Osaka. The signs are promising that Vivian has a bright future.”
Her coach says Yang has the unique ability to enjoy the challenge of competition and thrives on big tournaments and matches.
“There is a big difference in her personality on the practice court and match court – which I like,” Alexander says. “We’re at the stage where we’re trying to find a good balance between using Vivian’s aggression and being consistent enough to go deep in tournaments.”
Her experience as a hitting partner at the star-studded ASB Classic this summer gave her a good confidence boost.
She got to hit with Slovenian Katarina Srebotnik, who was once ranked number one in the world in doubles.
Impressed by Yang in their first practice session, Srebotnik specifically asked to partner with her again – much to the delight of the young national titleholder.
“She’s really solid and her style was bringing out a good game in me,” says Yang, who’s classified as a tier-one player in Tennis New Zealand’s high performance programme.
“The first year [at the ASB Classic] I was watching in the crowd; the second year I was in the lounge and this year I was good enough to be a hitting partner. So hopefully next year I will be playing qualifiers, if everything goes well.”
With a competitive head on her shoulders, and access to specialists, that may become a reality.
As one of seven young players in Tennis NZ’s high performance programme, Yang has an assigned coach, who travels with her, and access to training facilities, sport psychologists and strength and conditioning experts.
“No pressure if you lose in the first round,” Yang jokes. “Sometimes when I don’t play well, it’s hard because I’m scared people are going to blame me. But win or lose, I’m always willing to work harder to be stronger in tournaments.”
Alexander has been training Yang since late 2018 and says it can be tough at times for a full-time student athlete at a very young age. He says Yang can be very hard on herself – wanting to always improve is good but it can be a double edge sword if it goes too far.
“She’s a lot of fun too, though. She’s good at laughing at herself and not taking things too seriously, all the time,” he says.
Seeing a sports psychologist has helped Yang to take the pressure off.
“She just listens to me rant about things that bother me – mainly things I feel like I can’t tell my coach. It’s not easy but I have the motivation to make it professionally, so that keeps me pumped,” she says.
Yang would turn professional sooner, but has decided to wait until she finishes school to see where she’s at. In the meantime, her goals are to gain as much experience as she can competing in more professional tournaments around the world.
“I got to play against professional players in a $15,000 women’s tournament in Hamilton last weekend which was pretty good – I made it to the quarterfinals in both the singles and doubles,” she says.
“I was a bit nervous at the start but when I got my first point, I started to relax. It’s different to playing juniors.”
She’s already making plenty of progress through the junior ranks. Yang was the youngest player at the Aon U18 national championships last December, making it to the semifinals in both singles and doubles. Before that, she won both the singles and doubles crowns at the ITF World Tennis Tour junior tournament in Auckland.
Understandably, Yang prefers physical activity and being outdoors as opposed to sitting in a classroom.
“I didn’t go to school for the first four weeks [of this year]. This is only my second day because I’ve been travelling to tournaments,” says Yang, as we sit at Albany Tennis Park in between training sessions on a Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m only going half-days, but my teachers are really supportive and we’re meeting the principal to see how it can work for the year because I’ll be travelling at least once a month, sometimes up to two weeks at a time.”
Yang and Alexander are currently travelling to tournaments around Southeast Asia for six weeks, which will end playing for the New Zealand team at the Junior Fed Cup Asia-Oceania qualifier in Malaysia in the last week of March.
When she’s not playing tennis, Yang thinks about the sport or resting her body. Volleying against her bedroom wall and listening to audio books (right now it’s best-seller Sophie’s World) before matches and training is the norm.
Although Yang was born in New Zealand, she lived in China until she was 12 years old and returned with her parents and younger sister three years ago.
It was Yang’s father who introduced her to tennis when she was four.
“When I was a child, I was always sick, so my dad said I needed to get stronger physically. He wanted me to learn a sport, and he likes playing tennis, so it all started from there,” says Yang.
“My upbringing in Tianjin was fun but tiring, because we would train for like six hours a day during the school holidays and maybe four hours on a school day.”
Yang, who speaks Mandarin and English, admits moving back to Auckland was initially difficult – she didn’t know anyone, and was confused by the different cultures. But she has now settled in.
German tennis star Alexander Zverev is her idol. He’s been hailed as a possible future number one by Rafael Nadal, and Yang can recall watching him when he played in China.
“I was younger and I didn’t understand a lot about the game back then, but I remember seeing his passion and energy on court. Watching his movements and seeing his emotions made me feel comfortable,” she says.
Perhaps one day, Yang will invoke the same feelings in a young player watching the committed New Zealander.