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Published: 11:37, May 30, 2022 | Updated: 17:46, May 30, 2022
Zheng emulates idol Li with stunning Paris run
By Sun Xiaochen
Published:11:37, May 30, 2022 Updated:17:46, May 30, 2022 By Sun Xiaochen

Chinese teenager pays tribute to legend after storming into French Open last 16

China's Zheng Qinwen returns the ball to France's Alize Cornet during their women's singles match on day seven of the Roland-Garros Open tennis tournament at the Court Philippe-Chatrier in Paris on May 28, 2022. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Dubbed the next Li Na for her amazing run at Roland Garros, tennis prodigy Zheng Qinwen is embracing the spotlight with confidence as the teenager dreams big.

The scene of Li's trailblazing triumph at Roland Garros in 2011, Court Philippe Chatrier witnessed another breakout moment for Chinese tennis on Saturday when 19-year-old Zheng cruised into the French Open fourth round in her tournament debut after opponent Alize Cornet retired due to injury while trailing 6-0, 3-0.

I always think that I have the same level as them... of course I see they are all in front of me. But I know what I can do and I have to be patient and wait for the moment to come.

Zheng Qinwen, on comparisons to fellow teen stars Emma Radu-canu and Leylah Fernandez

With three convincing wins in Paris now under her belt, including stunning 2018 champion Simona Halep in the second round, Zheng has advanced to the second week of a major for the first time on the same court that saw Li shoot to stardom.

Like Li, Zheng is a native of Hubei province, but the similarities don't end there. Zheng's powerful game and colorful personality have also drawn comparisons with legend Li, whose victory in Paris 11 years ago was Asia's first singles Grand Slam title, when Zheng was aged just 8.

Reflecting on her sensational run in the French capital, Zheng was quick to pay tribute to Li's influence.

"She gave me a little dream feeling from the heart that Asian people also can do something really good in tennis," Zheng said in fluent English during her post-match interview on Saturday.

"Because the first one is always special, and especially in that moment I was really young.

"So, yeah, she gave me the dream that I can do something big in tennis."

Next up for Zheng in the last 16 is world No 1 and 2020 champion Iga Swiatek, who on Saturday extended her remarkable winning streak to 31 matches by beating Danka Kovinic of Montenegro in straight sets.

Swiatek's dominating form this season has seen her snatch five titles, but Zheng is unfazed by the challenge that awaits.

"As strong a player as she is, we are all human beings and I am not playing against an alien," Zheng joked about facing Swiatek on Monday.

"I didn't watch a lot how she plays but I know that she's a great clay-court player. That will be a tough match for sure. Yet, all humans have weaknesses and I will focus on playing my game the best I can."

Already being referred to as "Rocket Girl" by some fans due to her sharp ascent up the world rankings since switching to adult events last year, the 74th-ranked Zheng is projected to surpass her 41st-ranked compatriot Zhang Shuai to become China's new No 1.

"I know where I could be so I am not gonna stop here. This is only the beginning. I will have plenty more opportunities to present a better game to the fans," said Zheng, who has so far earned 220,000 euros ($236,000) in Paris.

READ MORE: China's Zheng dominates local favorite at French Open

China's Zheng Qinwen returns the ball to France's Alize Cornet during their women's singles match on day seven of the Roland-Garros Open tennis tournament at the Court Philippe-Chatrier in Paris on May 28, 2022. (JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP)

Star in the making

Born in Shiyan, a city about 400 kilometers from Li's hometown Wuhan, Zheng started to practice tennis as a 6-year-old, encouraged by her parents who also introduced her to table tennis. It wasn't long before her talent on the court was noticed by Li's childhood coaches, Xia Xiyao and Yu Liqiao in Wuhan.

"I thought by playing tennis, the ball and the court are bigger so I have greater space to express myself," said Zheng, who developed her game in Beijing at an academy run by Li's former coach, Carlos Rodriguez of Argentina.

After collecting eight ITF titles over the course of 17 months, Zheng impressed on her step up to the WTA Tour during the Australian swing early this year.

ALSO READ: Former champion Halep knocked out by China's Zheng

She reached her first WTA semifinal in Melbourne at a warm-up event for the Australian Open before fighting from the qualifiers into the second round at the year's first major in her Grand Slam debut.

Zheng's ferocious attacking style is reminiscent of Li's game, while her impressive physicality bodes well for her long-term prospects in the sport.

Zheng's breakout run in Paris has also drawn comparisons with two other teen stars-reigning US Open champion Emma Raducanu of Britain, and the runner-up in New York last year, Leylah Fernandez of Canada, who are touted as the future of the women's game.

Zheng, though, is keen to block out the hype and stay focused on her own path.

"I always think that I have the same level as them," she said. "The difference is the results and the ranking. Of course I see they are all in front of me. But I know what I can do and I have to be patient and wait for the moment to come."

With her older peers like Zhang and world No 129 Wang Qiang struggling to make further improvements on the tour, Zheng's rise has arrived at a critical time for Chinese tennis, especially since no international pro events have taken place in China since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020.

sunxiaochen@chinadaily.com.cn


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