‘No one was badder than me’

There was a time when Zhang Shuai could not win a single main-draw match at Grand Slam level.
Before her surprise run to the Australian Open quarter-finals in 2016, the affable Chinese had a 0-14 record in matches at the majors and was contemplating retirement. Today, she is ranked 36 in the world and has a 36-40 win-loss mark in singles at the Grand Slams.
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Through to the US Open fourth round for the first time in her career, Zhang looks back on her early days on tour with self-deprecating humour that has made her one of the most-loved players on the WTA circuit.
“I was telling my coach, this year, I already have three third rounds at the Grand Slams. Oh my god, I won six matches! Before I couldn't win one match in many, many years. How happy!” the 33-year-old Zhang said ahead of her last-16 clash with Coco Gauff on Sunday.
“That's why when we meet some player who wants to stop or feeling sad after a match, I always tell them, ‘Next one, for sure you’ll do better. See how when I started the tour, how bad my results were? No one was badder than me. I am the history. I’m No. 1 in something. These players are much better than me, right? You guys are still young. You should keep trying’.”
Zhang, who won the doubles crown at the US Open last year, is still alive in singles, doubles and mixed doubles this fortnight in New York – something she did not see coming.
“Sometimes when you start winning your singles matches, I think, ‘Why did I sign up for all three? What am I doing?’ I should have planned a better schedule,” she said with a chuckle.
Zhang lost her sole previous singles clash with Gauff, in Miami earlier this year, and admits she is a big fan of the 18-year-old American.
“She’s amazing, she’s very cute and also her brother is so cute. When I played against Coco in Miami, when she was winning points, her brother was cheering for her and yelling, ‘Come on’, and then he’d look at me and immediately stay quiet. I told him, ‘It’s okay, no problem’,” she laughed.
“They’re so cute. We played doubles together in Stuttgart and made the final and we practised together there. I like her tennis.
“Because I’ve already known Coco for a few years now, I still feel she is 14, 15. Because I think I’m 20, that’s why. I don’t feel I’m 33 years old, that’s why I can keep playing on tour. I never think about my age.
“At Wimbledon in the second week when I was going to practice and I wanted to take a basket of balls. They said, ‘I'm sorry, we don't give juniors this basket’. See? I look maybe even younger.”

Shuai Zhang of China hits a shot against Anna Karolina Schmiedlova of Slovakia during her second round match on Day 3 of the US Open Tennis Championships at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on August 31, 2022 in New York City

Image credit: Getty Images

Zhang was one of four Chinese women who made it to the US Open third round this week – an unprecedented feat in women’s tennis history – and she is thrilled to see her compatriots doing well.
“Maybe this year is the Chinese year,” she said. “So many great Chinese players have come up on the tour. I’m happy to see this because I’m not alone like the last two years. Sometimes on tour these past couple of years, there were just like three, four Chinese people around; me, my mum, and my coach and maybe Jenny the umpire. Now we are feeling the Chinese team is stronger and stronger.”
In 2017, Zhang held a match point but couldn’t convert it during a third-round loss to Karolina Pliskova. She is happy to have broken that barrier five years later, and says she has been channelling her inner Sania Mirza – a good friend of hers – during her matches this week.
“Today I played unbelievably good, like Sania (Mirza) always on the big matches, she played unbelievably good, so I tried to tell myself I should do what Sania says, she always says, ‘The final, always I play the best match’,” she said after her win over Rebecca Marino on Friday.

Everybody loves Charly

Carlos Alcaraz has taken men’s tennis by storm this season, grabbing four titles and rising to No. 4 in the world at just 19 years of age.
The Spanish teenager exudes charisma on court, and his fan-base is getting bigger and bigger every time he competes. He is arguably the biggest thing to happen to the men’s game since the ‘Big Four’ and everyone has taken notice, including some of the brightest stars on the women’s tour.
Coco Gauff recently revealed she has been learning a lot through watching Alcaraz in practice and on the match court, and is inspired by how big he goes on his shots during high-pressure moments.
“At French Open, that's what I told myself. I literally said 'What would Carlos do?' I'm just going to go big and go for my shots and go for these decisions,” the Roland Garros finalist told reporters in Cincinnati last month.
Four-time major champion Naomi Osaka is also a big fan of Alcaraz and said she will be watching some of his videos in order to regain the feel on her forehand, which deserted her during her first round loss to Danielle Collins at this US Open.
When told of Gauff and Osaka’s comments, Alcaraz said with a grin: “I'm really happy to hear that, that the best women players say that about you. It's great.
“I'm trying to show all the players, all the people, that you have to enjoy, to go for it, to show your best level in the best moment, in the best style.”
He’d be happy to know that it’s working.

Quotes of the day

“I'm not really a vengeful person. I just kind of come out here and do my best. Love to compete. Any win is a bonus for me. Lucky to be here with a lot of the challenges I faced. I'm motivated from within. I just do the best that I can. I work my tail off. I've got an incredible work ethic. I think that that comes out a lot in my performances.”
-- Danielle Collins when asked if she sees her US Open as a revenge tour.
“I watched Serena last night and It was amazing how she saved all those match points. So I tried to do the same.”
-- Petra Kvitova after saving match points en route to a tight third-round victory over Garbine Muguruza.

Tweet of the day

Denis Shapovalov was all class following his five-set third-round defeat to Andrey Rublev.

Stats of the day

- Danielle Collins struck an impressive 52 winners in her straight-sets victory over Alize Cornet to reach the US Open fourth round for the first time in her career.
- Rafael Nadal extended his unblemished record against Richard Gasquet to 18-0 by defeating the Frenchman in the third round on Saturday.
- With his win over Jenson Brooksby, Alcaraz has become the youngest man to reach the US Open fourth round in back-to-back years since Pete Sampras in 1989-90.
- Frances Tiafoe is through the US Open fourth round for a third consecutive year. He is the first American man to achieve that feat since Mardy Fish in 2012.
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