Fairytale Run Continues for Zhang Shuai

January 23, 2016 — Zhang Shuai believes she can win the whole thing. And, yet, before Monday she had never won a main draw match at a Grand Slam in fourteen attempts. As a result, she contemplated retirement at age 27 last fall. 

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Zheng Shuai. Photo credit Ausopen.org

With her career flipped on its miraculous axis, though, the qualifier and 133-ranked Chinese woman has blown through the first week of this Australian Open without dropping a set. Victoria Azarenka (No.14) can boast the same stat, but expectations for the Belarusian are quite a bit higher — she’s a 2-time Melbourne champion — than those for Shuai who seems to be striking the ball just about as good, or better, than Victoria. 

“Before no, but today maybe yes,” Shuai told the press when asked how far she thought she could go. “Because right now I already win six match, yeah. Six great player. I really want to win one day. I really want to win Grand Slam.”

She hit the main draw running, taking out the tenacious Italian and seventeenth seed, Sara Errani. In round two, she put an end to Alize Cornet’s run … a woman who twice beat Serena Williams last year and is ranked just outside the seeding net at 33. Saturday, Shuai frustrated American lefty Vavara Lepchenkov to the point she couldn’t serve, return, or put a point together. The match lasted 64 minutes, Shuai landing on top - 6-1 6-3. 

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Varvara Lepchenko at the 2015 Bank of The West tournament. Photo credit Pablo Sanfrancisco tennisclix.com.

Shuai had won 64% of her receiving points. She scored twice as many winners compared to unforced errors: 27-13; whereas, Lepchenkov registered almost the opposite stat: 18-26. First and second serve point percentages were steady, too, Shuai's second serve — the one that saves a player from many losses — was stellar: 57%.

The Australian Open is also called the Pan Pacific Open. Lots of Asian players have done well in Melbourne, most notably Li Na. She won the women’s singles title in 2014 and was the finalist in 2013. 

“I’m just focused by myself,” Shuai said. “I don’t want to think so much about other player because, yeah, tennis is - how to say … We from same country. So happy we have Li Na.[But] I don’t have to think about other player.”

Zheng Jie is another Chinese woman who has registered success in Melbourne but could not be at the tournament this year. Perhaps her absence foreshadowed Shuai’s success.

“Normally I start here play not really well,” Shuai explained. “This year I play amazing. I want to keep win, yeah. Zheng Jie, she always very lucky. She play well in Australian Open. But this year she didn’t come. This year I use her lucky locker. I don’t remember the locker number, but she said, Okay, I give you my lucky locker. So I think from her a lot lucky this year, yeah.”

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Madison Keys attacks with her fierce forehand, as she comes up short in the final of Family Circle Cup last year against Angelique Kerber. Photo credit Leslie Billman tennisclix.com.

Luck will have to be on her side when she plays Madison Keys in round four. The 2015 American semifinalist smashes the fuzz off the ball, could probably kick-serve a ball through the goalposts at an NFL game, and has a desire to win that equals her six-foot frame. 

“We play a lot of time, so we know each other,” Shuai said. “No more nervous for me because I already play six matches on this court this tournament. I’m enjoy the tournament right now, yeah.”

Keys, who is seeded 15th, defeated number-twenty seed Ana Ivanovic Saturday, 4-6 6-4 6-4. Keys hasn’t played Shuai, though, for at least three years. 

“We’re so happy for her now,” Keys began. “She’s won not only one, but two main draw matches. That’s great for her. Obviously she’s playing well, if she’s had the upsets she’s had. It will be a tough match.”

Neither player seems to be feeling much pressure, at least from an observer’s point of view. Shuai’s parents have been in Melbourne, which has added to her team of coach, physio, and fitness coach. The support has helped her feel stronger. The Chinese fan base has also spurred on Shuai.

“Before a lot of pressure,” Shuai admitted. "Right now I’m saying, Okay, give me more pressure. But right now, no more pressure, yeah.”

© Jane Voigt Tennis 2013