When you’ve lost all 14 grand slam matches you’ve played over an eight-year period, maybe it’s time for lady luck to intervene. Or for someone up above to take notice.
“I think I was waiting for one match win a long time,” Zhang Shuai told reporters after reaching the Australian Open quarterfinals. “So this time I’m feeling like maybe God will bless me … I’m so lucky.”
With her winning charm and on-court passion, the Chinese tennis player has become a favorite with both fans and players alike in Melbourne.
Having come through three qualifying matches to make the main draw, the world No. 133 stunned second-ranked Simona Halep in the first round and has since dropped just one set in three matches.
On Wednesday Zhang faces another unlikely character, Johanna Konta, for a spot in the semifinals at one of tennis’ four biggest events.
Even Konta, an Australia-born British representative, has taken notice of Zhang’s progress.
“Well, I think Zhang Shuai is actually on a bit more of an incredible journey than myself,” the world No. 47, also appearing in her first grand slam quarterfinal, told reporters. “She won her first main-draw match at a slam. I think that’s an incredibly special moment. She’s still in the event here. She’s come from qualifying.
“I think she’s doing unbelievably well. So all credit to her for that.”
Athletes often possess a bit, at the very least, of swagger. The self-confidence and belief, coupled with talent, can be a major key to success.
But Zhang, who celebrated her 26th birthday on January 21, wasn’t expecting much when she made the trip to Melbourne.
She even brought her father Zhang Zhi Qiang — a former pro soccer player — and mother Wang Feng Quin — an ex-basketballer — to watch her play, sensing it would be the final tournament of her career. Although she was still working at her game, the results weren’t there for a player who once ranked as high as 30th and beat Dinara Safina in 2009 when the Russian was world No. 1.
Those accomplishments lifted the spirits of a nation of around 1.3 billion people seeking an heir apparent to China’s first and only grand slam singles champion, Li Na — who followed her 2011 French Open success by winning the 2014 Australian Open.
Zhang was almost knocked out of qualifying at the final hurdle, prevailing in a 2½ hour contest with French veteran Virginie Razzano 4-6 6-2 8-6.
Was she confident of upsetting Halep — the 2014 French Open runner-up and a semifinalist at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open? Not really.
Her coach Liu Shuo told Reuters the duo and some friends bought a lottery ticket for a jackpot that was offering $15 million on the eve of the first-round match.
“But I told her, ‘This isn’t a great way to get rich,'” Liu said. “But tomorrow’s match will take you 50% on the way to getting rich, to getting famous.”
It turned out to be a great motivational speech, since Zhang stunned Halep 6-4 6-3 to end her drought. Halep wasn’t in top form and has since disclosed she’ll have nose surgery.
Proving that, for some players, winning one match at a major can be just as much of an accomplishment as capturing a grand slam title, she wept with joy uncontrollably in her on-court interview. She proved she was human, instead of a programmed athlete going through the motions.
“Yeah, so many (friends) came to hug me,” Zhang said. “So proud of me, so excited and happy. Everybody say I make everybody cry, you know. So, yeah, because so many players in the tour, we know each other very much.
“They thought I would not win one match in the grand slam, so I think so many players were so happy to see me win the first round. So, they just tell me, ‘Good luck, keep winning.'”
A crowd favorite
Indeed, from that point onward, Zhang had supporters firmly behind her.
Two more wins followed and destiny gave Zhang a significant boost in the fourth round Tuesday. Up against 2015 Australian Open semifinalist Madison Keys, one of the hardest hitters in the women’s game, the American began to feel the effects of an adductor injury at the beginning of the second set. Though she bravely carried on, Zhang finally put away the 20-year-old 3-6 6-3 6-3.
Including qualifying, Zhang’s win tally in Melbourne is seven — the amount of main-draw wins needed to win a grand slam.
Zhang’s ranking is so low she wasn’t given a locker room near the player restaurant; she found a home in locker room B when compatriot and 2010 Australian Open semifinalist Zheng Jie gave her a spot. But that’s been good for her.
“Outside locker room is the trophy,” Zhang told reporters. “Every time when I go in there, I watch the trophy. I really want one day I can win this tournament.
“Normally I start here and play not really well. This year I play amazing. I want to keep winning.
“Zheng Jie, she is always very lucky. She plays well in the 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.’ I hope you can be lucky this year.”
Change in demeanor
A timid, anxious demeanor on court has been replaced by grit and a handful of fist pumps.
If Zhang loses to Konta, her ranking will still rise to well inside the top 80 and she would pocket the equivalent of $280,000. But she has no intention of going home just yet.
“I don’t want to stop,” she said. “I want more steps.”
Retirement has been put off for the time being.
However, when Zhang does decide to stop, she knows what she wants to do.
“I really want to have one coffee bar,” she said.
Her performances in Melbourne, a city that thrives on its cafe culture, have kept everyone awake.