MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Disillusioned by her struggles on the tour, the Australian Open could have been Zhang Shuai’s last grand slam appearance but the Chinese qualifier found a reason not to quit on Tuesday when she sent second seed Simona Halep packing.
With her parents watching in the crowd for the first time, the 25-year-old wept with emotion at Margaret Court Arena after completing a stunning 6-4 6-3 win to set up a second round match with Frenchwoman Alize Cornet.
Only months before, Zhang, from China’s northern port of Tianjin, had all but resolved to hang up her racquet and pursue a simpler life on the soil.
A former world number 30, her ranking had plummeted to its worst in five years after a string of early exits at second-tier ITF tournaments.
But after winning a lower-tier event in Japan in November, she put herself into the qualifying draw at Melbourne Park, fancying one last shot on a big stage.
“(Last year), I actually didn’t want to go compete. I was scared of playing,” the slightly built Zhang told reporters in Mandarin.
“I didn’t mind that the tour was tiring, I just didn’t want to play. I even felt like I should just go and lose as quickly as possible.
“I don’t know how I got that point of just feeling so sick of it.
“I think getting through that period helped me mature. I think it was a very important experience.
“Everyone wants to remember their most beautiful moments but I feel like the toughest times are also important.”
Asked what she would have done away from the game, Zhang said “farming”.
“I wanted to grow fruit, vegetables, grow flowers,” she added.
“I have a couple of really good friends and we often go pick flowers … And I felt I really want to have this kind of life, to feel relaxed and really enjoy life.
“I wanted to go study with them, study a lot of things. But I didn’t want to keep going through that hardship (on tour). I was sick of it.”
In 2009, Zhang upset Russian world number one Dinara Safina at the China Open and as a 226th-ranked wildcard became the lowest-ranked woman to ever beat a top-ranked player.
Although she had never won a match in the main draw of a grand slam in 14 attempts, she was thrilled to draw Halep in the opening round as it would mean a chance to play on one of the show-courts.
“I wanted (my parents) to come and see what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years,” she said. “This is my life, already like 20 years. So, yeah, this is so lucky my parents are here and I won.”
(Editing by Pritha Sarkar)