By Nick Mulvenney
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Qualifier Zhang Shuai thinks she can become China’s second grand slam winner after easing into the last 16 of the Australian Open with an emphatic 6-1 6-3 victory over American Varvara Lepchenko on Saturday.
With China’s first grand slam champion Li Na having retired and her fellow trailblazer Zheng Jie looking set to follow, expectations of success were low in the world’s most populous nation coming into 2016.
Zhang, who had never won a grand slam match in 14 attempts before Tuesday, continued to confound that pessimism when she extended her remarkable run at Margaret Court Arena on Saturday.
Picking up where she left off in her stunning upset of world number two Simona Halep in her opener and the two-set victory over France’s Alize Cornet in round two, she dominated Lepchenko to win the first set in less than half an hour.
Another crunching forehand winner saw Zhang break the Uzbekistan-born world number 51 early in the second set and before too long she was serving for the match at 5-2.
Perhaps overawed by the position she found herself in, the 27-year-old Chinese was broken herself but she stormed back in the following game to seal victory on her second match point when an overwhelmed Lepchenko netted.
“I just wanted to show the best of Zhang Shuai in this match,” she told reporters. “I tried to treat this like it was the last match of my life. I think I did a great job.”
Zhang will next face another American in Madison Keys, a semi-finalist last year, in her seventh match at Melbourne Park over the last couple of weeks for a place in the quarter-finals.
Asked whether she could conceivably win the tournament on Sunday week, Zhang did not demur.
“Before, no,” she said. “After today, yes.”
(Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Ken Ferris)