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Li Na surprises Zheng as China's tennis queens hold court

Updated: 2024-01-22 09:03
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Zheng Qinwen (left) meets China's two-time Grand Slam singles champion Li Na after her third round match at Melbourne Park on Saturday. AUSTRALIAN OPEN

MELBOURNE, Australia — Zheng Qinwen had just regaled the Rod Laver Arena crowd with her memories of Li Na's triumph in the Australian Open final when she had a surprise visitor.

In the brief time on court between her 6-4, 2-6, 7-6 (8) win over fellow Chinese player Wang Yafan in a tense tiebreaker Saturday and Shang Juncheng's match against Carlos Alcaraz, Zheng was asked about her tennis inspiration.

The US Open quarterfinalist said she'd watched Li win that 2014 final live on TV, and had watched it again at least 10 times since then.

Unknown to her, tournament organizers had invited Li along to watch the center court program that featured the all-China women's singles match followed by Shang, an 18-year-old wildcard entry in the men's draw.

Li, the first woman from Asia to win a Grand Slam singles title in 2011, was visiting to mark a decade since her title in Australia.

She won the French Open in 2011 and lost two finals in Australia before becoming champion at Melbourne Park in 2014.

Zheng said Li's visit was a total surprise.

"She just (said) congratulations," Zheng said. "I was feeling super happy to meet her and have the chance to talk with her because I've never talked with her in person. That was feeling really special for me."

The 21-year-old Zheng was even more complimentary after seeing Li, saying: "You know, I feel she's much more beautiful than ... when I saw her on TV before."

The Zheng-Wang match lasted two hours and 40 minutes and preceded compatriot Shang's loss to Wimbledon champion Alcaraz.

Zheng had a chance to serve for the match at 5-4 in the third, but was unable to convert, and needed two match points to clinch it in the tiebreaker.

Wang eventually netted a backhand volley to end a 25-shot rally, the longest of the match.

"That was a really difficult tiebreaker. We gave our best," Zheng said. "She never gives up. She always gets the ball back. I felt a lot of pressure in this match."

Zheng hadn't made it past the second round in her two previous trips to Melbourne Park, but has experience in the second week at Roland Garros and the US Open.

Now the draw is opening up for her to make a deeper run. All the past major winners, including 2022 Wimbledon champion and last year's Australian Open runner-up Elena Rybakina, were gone before the fourth round.

Zheng will next play 95th-ranked Oceane Dodin, who beat Clara Burel 6-2, 6-4 in an all-French encounter and is past the second round for the first time in 20 Grand Slam tournaments.

The winner of that match will advance to a quarterfinal against either No 26 Jasmine Paolini or Anna Kalinskaya, who hadn't been past the third round until her win over 2017 US Open champion Sloane Stephens on Saturday.

Zheng is feeling more at home in Melbourne, saying there's more support from Chinese fans than at any of the Slams.

And Li was among them.

"We met once before when I was a junior, but not one-on-one, face-to-face," Zheng said. "I didn't have the chance to talk with her. Today is the first time we really talked with each other."

And Li's advice: "She told me not to think too much, just keep it simple. I think that's what I need to do right now."


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