Coach believed in Zhang's ability to battle through

MELBOURNE • Zhang Shuai's transformation from an emotional wreck to a Grand Slam quarter-finalist has been the feel-good story of the Australian Open thus far but it also counts as a triumph of player management by her faithful coach Liu Shuo.

Finding the right words to comfort a player after a loss is one of the tougher parts of a coach's job, so 37-year-old Liu had to get creative last year as Zhang suffered a crisis of confidence that pushed her to the brink of quitting.

The Chinese player slumped to her 14th successive first-round Grand Slam exit at the French Open last year, a record among active players in the women's top 300. Her ranking, which peaked at 30 in mid-2014, plummeted towards the 200s.

As the losses piled up, Liu used boxing metaphors, the wisdom of Michael Jordan and the lessons from his own low points as a Tour battler who never broke into the top 1,000 to garnish his motivational speeches.

Zhang wondered if her coach was "cheating" her into persevering but Liu never had any doubt that she would turn it around.

RATIONALE BEHIND THE BREAKTHROUGH

It's like boxing, if someone hits you, don't fall down. Just try standing. Maybe there will be a second where you have an opening and 'bang!' Just hit.

LIU SHUO, coach of unlikely Australian Open heroine Zhang Shuai, on how he encouraged her not to give up.

"I told Shuai that she was totally different from other Chinese girls," he said yesterday. "I said, 'One day you will have huge success at the Grand Slams.' I just felt that for some people who have easy wins in the first or second round, they might not go much further.

"But if you are always having to battle through the tough times and you never give up, you'll be a big, big success. If you give up, there will be no chance to see the bright days.

"This is what I told her every time that we lost. It's like boxing, if someone hits you, don't fall down. Just try standing. Maybe there will be a second where you have an opening and 'bang!' Just hit."

That opening came in the most unlikely of circumstances, when Zhang was drawn to play world No. 2 Simona Halep in the first round, having grafted through qualifying as the world's 133rd-ranked player.

"Everyone (in China) said, 'Fifteen first-round exits coming soon'. Nobody believed in her. Maybe only her parents, me and her fitness coach," Liu said.

Zhang, from Tianjin, had virtually resolved that Melbourne Park would be her last Grand Slam, so she brought her parents with her to watch her play.

In the lead-up, she and Liu bought lottery tickets for a US$15 million (S$21.45 million) jackpot with friends on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.

"But I told Shuai, 'This isn't a great way to get rich. But tomorrow's match will take you 50 per cent on the way to getting rich, to getting famous'," said the coach.

Zhang beat Halep 6-4, 6-3, then proved it was no fluke by upsetting seasoned Grand Slam performer Alize Cornet in the following round.

Her next win over American Varvara Lepchenko made her only the fourth Chinese woman to reach the last 16 at a Grand Slam after two-time Grand Slam champions Li Na (singles), Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai (both doubles).

The 27-year-old beat Madison Keys on Monday to set up today's quarter-final against Sydney-born Briton Johanna Konta at the Rod Laver Arena.

"Nobody could have predicted Zhang would make the quarters here," said Liu. "But I felt she had the mental side, the psychology."

Keeping things calm for her is now his priority. It is virtually impossible with the buzz that her run has created in China.

"The first day when we came here for qualifying, nobody talked about us. There were no interviews, nobody cared," he said.

"Now, I've had to tell lots of Chinese media to keep calm, please don't give her any extra pressure.

"For sure, I don't want to limit her, I just want her to be free to play her best tennis at such a great stadium."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 27, 2016, with the headline 'Coach believed in Zhang's ability to battle through'. Print Edition | Subscribe