Retirement cafe will have to wait
In Australia a seven-year drought is broken, and now tennis player’s thirst for success knows no end, Sun Xiaochen reports.
Dreams are sometimes realized at the most unlikely times, and in the case of the Chinese tennis player Zhang Shuai, the Australian Open last month was such an occasion.
Going into the tournament she had had an atrocious record in Grand Slam events since 2008: 14 consecutive firstround losses.
In the first round in Melbourne this year she faced the second seed Simona Halep of Romania, so the chances of her taking her string of defeats to 15 were high.
In fact before the Australian Open Zhang, 27, had pondered retiring and running a cafe.
“For most of the time in my life before the two weeks in Melbourne, I never felt happy as a player,” said Zhang, who turned professional in 2003.
“I was so frustrated … feeling that my efforts over these grueling years would never bear fruit.”
However, in Melbourne Zhang reached the quarterfinals, becoming the fourth Chinese to do so at a Grand Slam event after Li Na, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai.
En route to the last eight she upset a group of tough opponents including Halep, the French world No 33 Alize Cornet and the US No 17 Madison Keys until losing to the Briton Johanna Konta. In reaching the quarterfinals, Zhang rose to No 65 in the world rankings, her second-best ranking after briefly being ranked No 30 in 2014.
Now, it seems, those plans for running a cafe are on the backburner, fueled by her Melbourne performance and the encouragement of her coach.
“The breakthrough has pulled me back from the brink of retirement and has boosted my confidence in pursuing my ambitions,” says Zhang, who planned to take a break during the Chinese Spring Festival before playing in Indian Wells, California, next month.
Influenced by her father, who used to be a soccer player, Zhang began playing tennis when she was 5, in her hometown of Tianjin when the game was a preserve of the rich in China.
When players such as Li, who would go on to win the Australian Open and the French Open, started to shine on the global stage in the late 2010s, Zhang emerged as a Chinese player who could emulate them, those hopes spurred on by her defeating the then world No 1 Dinara Safina of Russia in the second round of the China Open in Beijing in 2009.
After winning her first and only title on the Women’s Tennis Association circuit in Guangzhou in 2013, Zhang began to be dogged by an injury to her right arm, which sidelined her for almost half of the 2014 season.
When she slumped to world No 200 last year, her lowest ranking since 2009, Zhang considered walking away from the game. She won just four maindraw matches all year and extended that winless Grand Slam streak to 14.
Since Li retired last year, Chinese tennis fans and media have been on the lookout for the country’s next Grand Slam prospect. By this time Zhang was being widely discounted, seen as yet another hopeful who had failed to live up to expectations.
“I felt that for everyone I had become a joke,” Zhang says, referring to her poor Grand Slam record. “I could take that, but I couldn’t take people mocking those who had supported me because of their supposed blind faith in me.”
Zhang’s strongest supporter is her coach Liu Shuo, who has played an instrumental role in guiding her through crises of confidence whenever the pair flew home after her early elimination in major events.
“I told her I would coach her at no cost as a proof of my faith in her ability,” says Liu, who started to work with Zhang in 2010. “Through inspirational talk I’ve got good at making people feel better about themselves.”
With her improved world ranking Zhang will play in more elite events on the professional tour, and she has set her eyes on qualifying for the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in August, intent on seeing her country’s flag raised high.
However, to do that Zhang has much more work to do because to qualify for the singles tournament at the Olympics, players need to be in the top 56 players in the world rankings on June 6. That means she needs to perform well enough over the next few months to climb nine places.
“One of my goals had always been to win in a Grand Slam tournament, and now that I have done that, I am ready to try to reach another goal, to play at the Olympics.
“One successful tournament won’t change my approach. I will continue working hard every day as an underdog. As long as I do my best in every practice session day in and day out, the results will take care of themselves.”
Zhang Shuai in her quarterfinal match against Johanna Konta of Britain in the Australian Open on Jan 27.
Zhang Shuai now has her sights set on reaching the Olympics.