Zhang hitting new heights on Old Turf

Zhang Beiwen, representing the United States, stretching to return a shot against world No. 4 Akane Yamaguchi of Japan in their quarter-final. She won to set up a clash with top-ranked Tai Tzu-ying.
Zhang Beiwen, representing the United States, stretching to return a shot against world No. 4 Akane Yamaguchi of Japan in their quarter-final. She won to set up a clash with top-ranked Tai Tzu-ying.ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

Former national shuttler reaches Singapore Open semi-finals for first time in 8 attempts

Since her decision to leave Singapore and the national set-up, every thing related to badminton has come at a premium for Zhang Beiwen, be it competition opportunities, chances to play quality opponents, even training time on court.

It is why she cherishes every shot she gets, and she made good on her meeting yesterday against world No. 4 Akane Yamaguchi, defeating the Japanese 21-15, 21-23, 21-19 in the quarter-finals of the OUE Singapore Open.

The result earned Zhang a first semi-final berth at the event in eight tries and another coveted clash today in the semi-finals against world No. 1 Tai Tzu-ying.

Lost for words, the 26-year-old said between giggles of joy shortly after her win at the Singapore Indoor Stadium: "I don't know what to say. I'm really happy. I can't describe it."

Reaching this stage of a Superseries tournament is not new to the world No. 13, who was a finalist at the French Open last October.

But the accomplishment of fighting - then prevailing - against a tricky opponent she lost to at the German Open just last month clearly proved satisfying.

"Akane is really hard to play against. She can get to any shot, so I have to be really, really patient," the Liaoning native said in English.

"She can lose her balance and be back up on her feet in an instant. You've got be very patient."

Zhang arrived in Singapore in 2003 under the Foreign Sports Talent scheme and earned citizenship in 2007. But she has a chequered past with the Singapore Badminton Association and a testy relationship with former chief singles coach Luan Ching.

She was dropped from the national team in 2011 and remains a Singapore citizen but now plays under the auspices of the United States, where she relocated to in 2012.

The Badminton World Federation does not require players to be citizens of the country they represent on its professional circuit.

After taking four straight points to open up a 17-13 lead in the second game yesterday, Zhang had hoped momentum would take her across the finish line.

"I really wanted to win at that time and when Akane caught up, I got really nervous," said the Las Vegas-based shuttler.

But perhaps the shakier one, the one with more at stake, was Yamaguchi, who as the 64-minute match wore on appeared to run out of ideas and steam.

The 19-year-old said: "My opponent is really good this time. I got a bit nervous playing her because she could receive all of my shots. I had no idea what to do but I kept on playing."

Tai, who beat Japan's Sayaka Sato 21-14, 21-19 yesterday, will start as favourite but Zhang can count on the fact that she has beaten the Chinese Taipei star at bigger events - the Denmark Open in 2014 and the Malaysia Open in 2015. Both are Superseries Premier events.

Zhang said: "Every match for me is important because I don't have that much training so I have to be really focused. I don't have pressure. I'm by myself. I'm always alone. I don't have many chances to play top 10 players, so this is a really good chance for me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 15, 2017, with the headline 'Zhang hitting new heights on Old Turf'. Print Edition | Subscribe