Tennis: A dream run from the abyss

Pondering retirement after multiple 1st-rd exits, Zhang Shuai hits giddy heights at Open

Zhang Shuai celebrates after winning her third round match against Varvara Lepchenko at the Australian Open. PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE • Giant-killing Zhang Shuai's dream run at the Australian Open gathered pace yesterday, as the Chinese qualifier stormed past Varvara Lepchenko and into a fourth-round clash with 15th seed Madison Keys.

Ranked 133rd in the world, Zhang had lost her previous 14 Grand Slam matches before this week, but has won three in a row at the Open and was never in danger against the American Lepchenko, cruising through 6-1, 6-3.

The 27-year-old has now accounted for world No. 2 Simona Halep, 33rd-ranked Frenchwoman Alize Cornet and the 51st-ranked player in the world as she produces some of the best tennis of her career.

"It's been an amazing tournament," she said after the match. "I just can only think about the next point. I wish I can play another match like this."

She landed 80 per cent of first serves on her way to clinching the opening set against Lepchenko on Margaret Court Arena, reeling off six straight games after dropping her opening serve.

After 14 straight Grand Slam losses, China's Zhang Shuai celebrates her third win at the Australian Open after beating Varvara Lepchenko of the US to reach the last 16 of the women's singles competition. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

She kept up the momentum in the second set to line up a crack at Keys, a semi-finalist in Melbourne last year, who came from a set down to beat Ana Ivanovic.

  • Day 6 results

  • Men's 3rd rd (selected): Milos Raonic (Can) bt Viktor Troicki (Srb) 6-2 6-3 6-4, Stanislas Wawrinka (Sui) bt Lukas Rosol (Cze) 6-2 6-3 7-6 (7-3), David Ferrer (Esp) bt Steve Johnson (USA) 6-1 6-4 6-4, John Isner (USA) bt Feliciano Lopez (Esp) 6-7 (8-10) 7-6 (7-5) 6-2 6-4, Bernard Tomic (Aus) bt John Millman (Aus) 6-4 7-6 (7-4) 6-2, Andy Murray (Gbr) bt Joao Sousa (Por) 6-2 3-6 6-2 6-2.

  • Women's 3rd rd (selected): Angelique Kerber (Ger) bt Madison Brengle (USA) 6-1 6-3, Victoria Azarenka (Blr) bt Naomi Osaka (Jpn) 6-1 6-1, Barbora Strycova (Cze) bt Garbine Muguruza (Esp) 6-3 6-2, Johanna Konta (Gbr) bt Denisa Allertova (Cze) 6-2 6-2, Madison Keys (USA) bt Ana Ivanovic (Srb) 4-6 6-4 6-4, Zhang Shuai (Chn) bt Varvara Lepchenko (USA) 6-1 6-3.

Zhang came to prominence in 2009 when she became the lowest-ranked player to defeat a reigning world No. 1 - Dinara Safina at the China Open - and was ranked as high as 30th in the world.

But her serial failure at Grand Slams and a horror 2015 in which she fell eight times in the first round and six times in qualifying almost convinced her that it was time to call it quits.

Her team told her to give it one more shot at Melbourne Park this year, and she now has a chance for make the quarter-finals.

"This is the best team in my life," said Zhang as she fought back tears in a courtside interview.

Yesterday also saw Spanish third seed Garbine Muguruza dumped out of the tournament .

Muguruza, rated one of the few women capable of threatening defending champion Serena Williams, slumped out at the hands of unseeded Czech Barbora Strycova, her 6-3, 6-2 loss punching a hole in the draw.

With Halep sent packing in the opening round, seventh seed Angelique Kerber becomes the top woman in the draw's lower half.

The path to a dream final against Williams seems laid out for 14th seed and two-time winner Victoria Azarenka, whose 6-1, 6-1 rout of Japanese qualifier Naomi Osaka was her eighth straight win and further evidence the Belarus star will be a force to reckon with this year.

With high seeds falling by the wayside, doors opened for lesser lights to shine. Among them, Australia-born Johanna Konta defeated Czech Denisa Allertova 6-2, 6-2 to become the first British woman into the last 16 in nearly 30 years.


Day 7, 4th rd: Singtel TV Ch114/115 & StarHub Ch208/209, 8am & 4pm

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 24, 2016, with the headline Tennis: A dream run from the abyss. Subscribe