Sporting Life

Zhang and her ilk break ranks, enrich us all

Qualifier's dream run ends against Konta but reinforces the enduring appeal of underdogs

In 2003, a genial, tall and relatively unknown Dutchman, born in Leiderdorp and till then possibly famous only in Leiderdorp, arrived from nowhere to reach the French Open final. Martin Verkerk, world No. 46, had beaten a world No. 4 and No. 7 and declared that "I cannot explain this. I mean, this is a dream. This is actually a little bit of a joke".

But this was no joke, only a blessing. The outsider, who defies the traditional script which suggests he exit after an early round, who scorns the ranking ladder which claims he is inferior, is not just invigorating but necessary. There is no point saying everybody has a chance in sport till, every now and then, a nobody proves it by seizing their chance.

But this unheralded hero cannot appear all the time, else there is no element of surprise. His appearance is to be rationed. Just when you don't expect it, there he is, talented, lucky, intriguing and oddly dressed. Just like Vladimir Voltchkov.

In 2000, the Belarusian, world No. 237, crept into the Wimbledon semi-finals, a figure so unsung that it was noticed at a press conference that his shorts were adidas and his top Nike. How come? "I don't have a clothing company," he replied. "The shorts actually were from Marat Safin."

Voltchkov never won a round again at Wimbledon but he balanced the athletic ledger: He told us then, as Zhang Shuai told us at this Open, that sport isn't just the preserve of champions but also of the unknown like them.


Zhang Shuai (left), the improbable heroine who brought an endearing spark to the women's draw at the Australian Open, embracing Johanna Konta after losing 4-6, 1-6 to the Briton in the quarter-finals yesterday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Yesterday, the Chinese world No. 133, lost to Britain's Johanna Konta 4-6, 1-6 in the quarter-finals but her journey this fortnight has been the tale of the Open. Young women will have watched her and thought only this: This could be me. What else is that but a triumph.

Most dreams of lesser players die quietly on outside courts before a scant audience, but just enough come to life for sport to believe in the truth of the underdog. Even so, Zhang's story was so startling that it seemed as if the scriptwriters of Rocky, Rudy, Breaking Away and every Hollywood underdog tale had ganged up to write it.

Fourteen losses in the first round of Grand Slams. A flirtation with retirement. A footballer father and basketballer mother in attendance for the first time. And then she wins, against the world No. 2, and covers her face and weeps at what she's done, and wins again, and uses a lucky locker, and celebrates a birthday midway, and gets lucky with an injured rival and, most of all, has a crowd falling for her.

Because she wasn't some established star, with rehearsed answers, but new and natural, who celebrated shots with an English "come on", who was never quite Li Na-funny but charming and honest.

In a brutal tennis world, of so many players yet only one winner every week, where you lose, pack up rackets and hope, move to a new city, just trying to be somebody, just trying to make a living, it's a privilege then to be witness to a player suddenly finding her moment.

She told us she wanted to start a coffee bar (all are welcome, she insisted) and that she made her fellow players emotional ("everybody say I make everybody cry"). She was suddenly delighted by life and thus delightful herself. Yesterday, she tweeted a picture of herself with a legend with the caption: "I won my very 1st Grand Slam match on the Margaret Court Arena and here I'm so thrilled to be with Margaret Court!"

She was to be admired also because she wasn't Holly Holm knocking out Ronda Rousey, she wasn't just one upset, she wasn't a tennis player knocking out a seed and then fizzling out. No, she was a ride. She was something for fans to hold onto, emotionally invest in, in a tournament where everyone was leaving.

The women's tournament lost the No. 2 seed in the first round, No. 6 in the second round, No. 3 in the third round and too many others. And so if Serena Williams was single-handedly carrying this Open, Zhang, who beat the No. 2, No. 33, No. 51 and No. 17, was illuminating it.

In a brutal tennis world, of so many players yet only one winner every week, where you lose, pack up rackets and hope, move to a new city, just trying to be somebody, just trying to make a living, it's a privilege to be witness to a player suddenly finding her moment.

It takes seven matches to win a Grand Slam event and Zhang, who played three qualifying matches, was in effect playing her eighth match yesterday. So it was enough, her Slam done, her statement made, her redemption come, her inspiration there to see. When she met Konta - an unseeded player now in the semis - at the net, both women hugged as if they did not want to let go. Perhaps it was two underdogs recognising a kindred spirit.

There are no fairy-tale endings, but this one was oddly poetic. On the last point of the match yesterday, a shot by Konta hit the net cord and just fell over. Zhang just looked at it. Her luck, you see, had finally run out.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 28, 2016, with the headline 'Zhang and her ilk break ranks, enrich us all'. Print Edition | Subscribe