Chinese teenager joins ranks of professional tennis elite with powerful run to Tokyo final
China’s Zheng Qinwen hits a return to Liudmila Samsonova during the Pan Pacific Open final on Sept 25. Zheng put up a brave fight in a 7-5, 7-5 loss to the in-form Russian. (PHOTO / AFP)
Not quite the perfect ending she had hoped for, but Zheng Qinwen still had every reason to be buoyed by her history-making run in Tokyo from Sept 19 to 25.
Building on her rapid ascent up the rankings this year, Zheng became the first Chinese teenager to appear in a WTA singles final at the Pan Pacific Open, where she eventually lost to Liudmila Samsonova 7-5, 7-5.
Despite the narrow defeat at the hands of the in-form Russian, Zheng deserves credit for a standout campaign in Tokyo, where she stunned top seed Paula Badosa in the second round to secure her first career win against a top-10 opponent.
Zheng also joined this year’s French Open runner-up Coco Gauff of the United States in becoming the second teenager to reach the final of a WTA 500 or higher-level tournament this season.
“It’s been a quite positive week for me even though the final result was disappointing,” said Zheng, who became the first Chinese teenager to crack the world’s top 30 on Sept 26 at a career-high ranking of No 28.
“It’s been a whole new experience for me to play my first final at a WTA 500 tournament. Obviously I have a lot to learn and improve on, especially in the handling of key points at clutch moments in important matches like a final,” she said.
“I believe a loss on the big stage like this, as well as many of my other matches this season, will ultimately turn out to be valuable lessons for me,” said the 19-year-old native of Hubei province.
Zheng poses with her runner-up trophy at the Pan Pacific Open on Sept 25. The 19-year-old’s excellent form this year has seen her rise to 28th in the world rankings. (PHOTO / REUTERS)
A power hitter boasting a big serve and swift footwork, Zheng’s aggressive game almost delivered another big upset to add to the many shocks she has produced this year.
Samsonova was forced to bring her A-game to fend off the surging Chinese teen to claim her third WTA title in a row following wins in Cleveland, Ohio and Washington in August.
The run to the final, however, has cemented Zheng’s status as an elite pro following a series of breakthroughs this season, including back-to-back third-round appearances at the US Open and Wimbledon following an impressive last-16 run at Roland Garros.
In her debut season competing full-time on the WTA Tour, Zheng has produced a string of giant-killing upsets, such as her second-round win over former No 1 Simona Halep on clay in Paris, a three-set defeat of 2019 US Open champion Bianca Andreescu in Toronto and a thrilling opening-round triumph over 2017 French Open winner Jelena Ostapenko in New York.
Riding the momentum of her solid run in New York, Zheng put her powerful game on full display on Day 5 in Tokyo when she dominated third-ranked Badosa of Spain. She hit seven aces and 24 winners to her opponent’s zero and eight to secure a 6-3, 6-2 win.
It was Zheng’s first victory over a top-10 player — not counting at the Canadian Open last month when she got past Ons Jabeur after the world No 2 retired injured.
Now having catapulted up the rankings from No 143 in January to her current No 28, Zheng is endeavoring to keep ever-soaring expectations in check.
“It’s definitely given me another confidence boost, but I’d rather stay calm than being overconfident,” said Zheng, who has already drawn comparisons to her legendary compatriot Li Na, a retired two-time Grand Slam singles champion who took the 2011 French Open and the Australian Open in 2014.
“I will try to focus on each and every training session, approach one match at a time and not think too far or too much about the future.”
“The key to coming back stronger is to learn from the loss and reflect on these experiences to improve on my weaknesses.”
Zheng reacts after winning a point against Russia’s Veronika Kudermetova during their semifinal match at the Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo on Sept 24. (PHOTO / AFP)
Encouraged by her parents, Zheng picked up a tennis racket for the first time aged 6 in her home province Hubei in Central China, where the trailblazing Li also hails from.
She later moved to Beijing to develop her talent at an academy run by Argentine guru Carlos Rodriguez, who coached Li to her second major victory in Melbourne in 2014.
Now based in Barcelona and training with Spanish coach Pere Riba, a former ATP world No 65, Zheng has set her sights on diversifying her arsenal beyond her blistering forehand and serve in order to mix it up with the world’s best.
China’s current top ace Zhang Shuai, who reached the semifinals in Tokyo, reckons Zheng will be a force to be reckoned with on the tour for many years to come.
“She plays so well. One day I am sure she will win Grand Slams,” Zhang said of Zheng after losing to Samsonova in straight sets in the semifinal.
“I’ve never seen someone, a girl, play stronger than her. She plays fast and aggressively, with a strong serve, backhand and forehand,” said Zhang, who practiced with Zheng in Tokyo before the tournament.
“She can make really strong cross-court and down-the-line shots on both sides, making opponents run a lot and hitting good winners.”
“She’s still so young. She could play many years on the tour. She’s a very nice person off the court too. I really like her,” added Zhang, who will next play at a WTA 250 tournament in Tallinn, Estonia.