January 30, 2024
BEIJING – So close and so disappointed! Yet, it is with so much pride that we can reflect on the journey of a Grand Slam champion in the making.
Despite her tough final loss to defending champion Aryna Sabalenka, tennis sensation Zheng Qinwen’s amazing run at the Australian Open has served up another major boost for the sport in China, 10 years after legend Li Na’s trailblazing triumph at the same tournament.
An aspirant talent, harboring major championship dreams since watching Li in 2014, Zheng was one step away from having her own name etched on the same trophy, as she commenced battle against the mighty Sabalenka on Saturday evening, roared on by an enthusiastic Chinese crowd at the Rod Laver Arena and the entire tennis community back home.
Two sets and 76 minutes later, Zheng’s first Grand Slam final ended in a sobering reality check that, despite her meteoric rise on the pro circuit, the 21-year-old still has plenty of catching up to do before reaching the very top of the game, technically and mentally.
“Yeah, actually it is difficult, you know. Also, maybe I have to work more on my tennis, also work more on my mentality, work more on myself to be able to (get) through this moment,” a dejected Zheng said in Melbourne after losing to Sabalenka 6-3, 6-2 in her first major final.
“Because, if you lose, there must be a reason behind it, and we have to try to figure out why, and then come back stronger and better next time,” said Zheng, who became just the second Chinese to ever reach a major singles final after Li did so at the 2014 Australian Open.
Coming up just one step short of the ultimate prize, Zheng seemed inconsolable after the final. She held back tears at the award ceremony while gazing at the trophy when Sabalenka lifted it for a second time in a row. She kept stressing how much better she could’ve done during the postmatch interviews, even with media all greeting her with words of encouragement.
Nothing seemed enough to satisfy the ambitious competitor, who’s already achieved many “firsts” for Chinese tennis over the past two weeks Down Under.
“Only winning the Grand Slam final meets my expectations. Without it, I will only think about the improvement that I have to make,” said Zheng, who did reach her own goal to crack the world top 10, which she set at last year’s Aussie Open, where she crashed out in the second round.
“I am so overwhelmed by the loss tonight and really not yet in the mood to reflect on the positives at all.
“I really appreciate all the spectators coming to cheer for me today. I feel like I’ve let them down,” a teary Zheng said at the news conference.
As one of the biggest serves on the women’s tour, Zheng, who hit a tournament-leading 54 aces in Melbourne, had her lack of consistency under pressure exposed in the face of Sabalenka’s near-flawless display of aggressive tennis, with the Belarusian power hitter dominating Zheng in first-serve percentage, first-serve points, break points won and total points won.
The relentless weight of shots from her opponent and, more predominantly, of her own expectation, proved too much to handle for Zheng in the high-stakes matchup against Sabalenka, compared with their only previous meeting at last year’s US Open quarterfinals.
“I think I can learn more from the loss today (than easier wins in earlier rounds), and I just hope that, next time, I can come back stronger,” said Zheng, who will earn prize money of about $1.13 million for making the final.
Slams on the way
At just 21, however, time is on the burgeoning star’s side.
She only needs to look to her tennis idol growing up, former world No 2 Li, for a glowing example of perseverance.
After suffering a tough defeat to Belgian great Kim Clijsters in her first major final, also at the Aussie Open in 2011, Li broke through at Roland Garros that same year at her second try to lift Asia’s first major singles trophy at the age of 28, before she doubled her haul in Melbourne three years later to complete a late-blooming career.
Developed during a booming time for tennis, inspired by Li’s two major wins, Zheng, who was born in the same province, Hubei, and started with the same junior coach as Li, had much earlier exposure to the pro circuit, and has enjoyed better coaching, management and marketing support than Li and her peers.
Now, with her game fast maturing, and with many more tournaments to play at home and abroad, Zheng has almost certainly secured a career path to multiple Slams.
“Every month she’s better and better and better,” Zheng’s Spanish coach Pere Riba said of his protege’s progress last week in Melbourne.
Even after Zheng’s first major final didn’t go her way, Riba, a former top-100 player on the men’s circuit, whose career was cut short by a car accident, remains convinced that Zheng’s game, and more importantly, her work ethic, will land her a major prize sooner or later.
“I have never seen a player in my life with a work ethic like the one she has; she is always ready for practice and a really hard worker,” said Riba, who started working with Zheng in 2021.
“The first week that we started working together, a long time ago, I said, ‘Okay, 7 am, we go to practice’. Then, we practiced a lot of hours. The next day, I said the same, then the next day, then the next. I was thinking that, after four or five days, she’s gonna say, ‘I’m tired’.
“I have to say, sometimes we got angry, because she wanted to do more, and me, I had to stop her.
“Then, you can imagine the dreams that she has, that she really wants to be there at the top, and I’m really, really happy for her, because she deserves it.”
A collective success
With Zheng leading the way, on Monday, China will have seven women’s players ranked within the top 100, four of whom are aged 22 or younger — Zheng, Wang Xinyu (22), Wang Xiyu (22) and Bai Zhouxuan (21).
In 2014, there were six Chinese women in the top 100 at an average age of 28, with only three of them in the top 90.
This progress owes a lot to Li’s groundbreaking career, which helped encourage Zheng’s generation to dream bigger.
“All of us are trying to develop and improve as best as we can. Some of us are young. We are trying to explore our game style. Right now, we are in a really good position for Chinese tennis,” Zheng said after her third-round match in Melbourne.
The United States, with 16 players, now has the most in the women’s top 100, followed by the Czech Republic with nine. China follows as the third biggest contingent, a sign that the country of nearly 1.4 billion people is leveraging its many resources and starting to take professional tennis seriously.
Despite the three-year, pandemic-enforced break, China will play host to seven WTA tour-level tournaments this year, providing the current generation with more world-class drills at home.
Witnessing the collective rise of the next generation, Li said she can rest assured that the game’s future is in good hands.
“Ten years, yeah, (I am) still proud of myself. The breakthrough is good for her (Zheng), for Chinese tennis. I’m happy to see a lot of young players grow up. I think there’s a big opportunity this year,” Li told the WTA’s official website in Melbourne.