China's Zhang Shuai celebrates after winning her third round match against Varvara Lepchenko of the U.S. at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park, Australia, January 23, 2016. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Eight years of grand slam failure pushed Zhang Shuai to the depths of despair but also fuelled a rage that fired the Chinese qualifier’s breakthrough at this year’s Australian Open.

The 27-year-old from the northern port of Tianjin will meet rising American talent Madison Keys in the fourth round on Monday, having become just the fourth Chinese woman to reach the last 16 of a grand slam.

In snapping a run of 14 successive first-round exits at the grand slams, 133rd-ranked Zhang also shrugged a huge monkey from her back, with no other active player in the women’s top 300 having borne such a record of underachievement at the majors.

After notching her 14th main draw failure at last year’s French Open, Zhang bowed out of qualifying at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in a form dip that all but drove her to retire.

“My coach told me time after time, loss after loss, it doesn’t matter,” she told reporters in Mandarin.

“He said once you finally win, you’ll just keep on winning.

“I don’t know if he was trying to comfort me or just cheat me into not giving up.

“So thinking about his words, I kept grinding.

“I don’t think anyone could ever understand how I felt during that losing streak. But luck can change really quickly.”

Having stunned second seed Simona Halep in the opening round, China’s number four player Zhang upset seasoned Frenchwoman Alize Cornet and American Varvara Lepchenko, playing with a freedom propelled by her grand slam frustrations.

“So many years of dealing with this pressure, not winning, feeling this rage, I think you need this to fire up,” she said.

“You’ve got to be fired up here or you won’t get anywhere.”

Melbourne Park has proved fertile ground for the blossoming of China’s top women, with 2014 champion Li Na and Zheng Jie’s run to the 2010 semi-finals making them the first Chinese duo to reach the last four of the same grand slam.

Fifteenth seed Keys stands in the way of Zhang’s quarter-final ambitions and the Chinese was relishing the prospect of another raucous crowd on one of the main showcourts.

“There is absolutely no fear of losing now,” she said.

“I’ll just be happy playing every point.

“From here, the point of playing tennis is to be happy, to enjoy it and not feel any pain.

“No matter how much I fail in future or lose matches, tennis will be a happy thing for me.

“I feel like I’ve already succeeded. I won’t worry about anyone else. I’ll just worry about myself.”

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)

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