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.

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - Con­tact the writer at sunx­i­aochen@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.”

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

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.

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