Zhang relishes milestone win
Zhang Shuai is one of the most inspirational stories in the tennis world in 2016.
She was on the verge of quitting the sport at the start of the year, with an 0-14 career record at the four major tournaments after a decade of playing professional tennis.
However, the 27-year-old from Tianjin won three qualifying matches at January’s Australian Open, then upset world No 2 Simona Halep in the opening round for her major singles match win of her career.
She didn’t stop there, reaching the quarterfinals in Melbourne — achieving one of the best results of all time for a Chinese tennis player at a Grand Slam tournament.
On Tuesday at the US Open, Zhang created a new personal milestone, defeating Ellen Perez of Australia 6-1, 6-1, for her first career main-draw singles victory in New York in her 10th trip to the event.
“I’m so excited. This is my first win. I’m feeling so happy,” said Zhang. “I have been waiting for this win for a long time.”
Zhang’s win along with Wang Qiang’s 6-4, 2-6, 6-2 upset over No. 23 seed Daria Kasatkina of Russia on Tuesday gave Chinese women a 5-1 record in first-round matches this year at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing, Queens.
Peng Shuai was the only Chinese woman not to advance out of the first round, losing 4-6, 7-6 (11-9), 6-3 to Vavara Lepchenko of the United States. Peng failed to capitalize on four match points in the second set.
Zhang needed only 50 minutes to complete the one-sided victory against her 20-year-old Australian opponent, a college player from the University of Georgia who is ranked No 724 in the world, the lowest-rated player in the field. Zhang committed only one unforced error in the match.
Zhang previously lost in the first round in the US Open main draw in 2008, 2011 and 2014. She also lost in the event’s qualifying rounds in 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015.
She is ranked No 51 on the WTA tour, making her the topranked player from China, a far cry from just eight months ago when she considered quitting professional tennis entering the Australian Open.
“I was thinking I should retire,” she said. “I’m not a great tennis player; maybe I can never win even one match at the Grand Slam,” Zhang said on Tuesday of her mindset at the start of the year. “I didn’t believe in myself anymore. I was feeling sad. I have no idea how I can play great tennis. In Melbourne, I tried one more time.”
Peng was making her first appearance at the US Open since her memorable appearance in the 2014 women’s semifinals when she lost to Caroline Wozniacki, retiring in the second set due to severe cramping.
Peng, who sat out most of 2015 after back surgery, was once again distressed in her loss on Tuesday, stretching between points early in the final set and not being able to run down many balls hit wide to her left or right. She nearly closed out the match in straight sets, holding four match points — two while serving for the match at 5-3 in the second set, and two more in the second-set tiebreaker at 7-6 and 9-8.
Lepchenko, an American immigrant from Uzbekistan ranked 68th, raced out to a 5-0 lead in the final set, capitalizing on Peng’s impaired condition. Peng connected on numerous go-for-broke winners when in the 0-5 hole and held serve twice; she broke Lepchenko’s serve once before finally succumbing in the ninth game. Peng is currently ranked No 259 but was able to use her “protected” ranking of No 27.
Zhang Shuai of China returns a shot to Ellen Perez of Australia during her first round women’s singles match on the second day of the 2016 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on Tuesday in Queens, New York.