The Citi Open women’s draw began with 32 players — and about 30 were more physically imposing than 5-foot-1 Kurumi Nara . Quiet, humble and relentlessly gracious, she wasn’t the tournament’s most intimidating personality, either.
But by Saturday afternoon, Nara had done something no women’s player had done in four years at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center. After a gritty 0-6, 6-4, 6-4 win over Marina Erakovic in a semifinal Saturday afternoon, Nara headed to her Saturday evening doubles final with partner Hiroko Kuwata as the first player to make the women’s singles and doubles finals in the same year.
“I can’t believe it,” Nara said through a big smile after her semifinal win, her face half hidden by a press room microphone set for taller players. “Double and single, both finals here, I just very happy.”
The doubles run ended Saturday night when Nara and Hiroko Kuwata fell to three-time defending Citi Open doubles champion Shuko Aoyama and her partner Gabriela Dabrowski, 6-1, 6-2.
Nara, 22, was already in the midst of her best season when she arrived in D.C. The rising Japanese talent reached the third round of the Australian Open, won her first WTA event at Rio de Janeiro in February, and reached her career-high ranking of No. 38 last month.
After knocking off No. 27 Madison Keys, an injured Zarina Diyas, and six-footer Kristina Mladenovic, Nara faced another taller opponent in the 5-foot-9 Erakovic.
With lingering memories of a previous 6-0, 6-0 loss to the New Zealander, Nara stumbled through a sloppy 6-0 first-set loss. She broke character, swiping her racket at the court in an anger.
“I was panicking in the first set,” she admitted.
So Nara calmed down, focused on “quick moves,” the ones she uses to cover the court and outlast opponents rather than blow them away with winners. Over two hours of sometimes sloppy play from both players, Nara stayed composed and selectively aggressive, assuming a larger and larger court presence as the match went on, the crowd grew and Erakovic struggled.
The three-set win projects to push Nara to a career-high ranking next week, the apex of an ascent that began when she reached the third round of last year’s U.S. Open. Nara then earned more WTA opportunities and, with them, confidence. Experiences, not tinkering, yielded her breakthrough this year.
“No,” she said when asked if she was doing anything differently over the past year. “I’m just trying to do everything same.”
Nara is the smallest player in the WTA Top 40. She says she admires fellow compact players like former Grand Slam champion Justine Henin and current No. 3 Simona Halep. And she won’t notice the size difference when she takes the court in Sunday’s final against 5-foot-9 Svetlana Kuznetsova, who beat Ekaterina Makarova, 6-3, 6-2, in Saturday’s other semifinal.
“I don’t feel it,” Nara said. “Everybody’s taller than me, so I don’t feel anything like I’m small.”
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