Eight years prior, Li Na achieved her long-desired victory by securing the coveted title. Her initial triumph at Roland Garros in 2011 was a surprising and iconic moment in tennis history, but it was her devoted efforts and determination that led to her triumph at the Australian Open. Despite facing two previous losses in Melbourne, Li persevered and fulfilled her dream of winning the tournament in 2014.
One of the many Chinese viewers who witnessed Li’s second victory was a young girl named Zheng Qinwen. At just 11 years old, she had already spent over three years training in Wuhan, Li’s hometown, which was a five-hour drive from her own hometown of Shiyan. Inspired by Li, Zheng followed in her footsteps and eventually moved to Beijing to train under Li’s former coach, Carlos Rodriguez.
Last year, Zheng expressed that after Li Na’s success in tennis, the sport gained more popularity in China. Zheng also credits Li Na for inspiring her to have a dream of achieving similar success.
This Saturday, Zheng will have an opportunity to become the second Chinese player to win a singles grand slam championship. She will face Aryna Sabalenka, the second seed, in her first major final.
It has been evident for a while now that the 21-year-old is an exceptional player. In 2022, she received the WTA newcomer of the year award for climbing from a ranking outside of the top 100 to the top 30. In the previous year, she reached the top 15 and was quickly recognized as the WTA’s most improved player.
Zheng’s weapons are varied and forceful. An excellent athlete and mover, she is armed with one of the most vicious forehands on the tour, its heavy, wicked topspin capable of tearing apart all defences. Despite its technical issues and low percentage, Zheng’s serve is brutally effective when it lands in, perfectly complementing her forehand. Although her heavy topspin and lengthy swings meant she initially thrived on clay court, Zheng is becoming increasingly effective on faster courts.
Although a grand slam victory was expected, Zheng’s path to her first final has been unconventional. Due to the elimination of higher-ranked players in the top half of the draw, she has had one of the simplest routes to a grand slam final in recent memory. In her six matches in Melbourne, she has not competed against any player ranked in the top 50 and has only faced one opponent ranked in the top 75. Her toughest opponent so far has been Katie Boulter, ranked No 54, in the second round.
Zheng’s draw does not diminish the achievement of becoming a grand slam finalist and the 12th seed maintaining her composure while being heavily favoured to win every match has been impressive, but it is certainly not ideal preparation for the challenge and level that awaits her.
Sabalenka experienced a turning point in her career last year. After observing the dominance of Iga Swiatek, she was able to improve her ability to manage her strength and emotions, resulting in a season of consistently high-level tennis. While she had a successful year, her mental vulnerability in crucial tournaments held her back from potentially even greater achievements.
Despite facing challenges, Sabalenka has displayed incredible resilience. She continuously bounces back, even after experiencing tough losses that could have hindered her progress. In 2023, she consistently refocused after each heartbreaking defeat and quickly rebounded. Despite narrowly missing out on the year-end No 1 ranking to Swiatek, despite leading the WTA race for most of the season, Sabalenka started off the following year with determination.
None of the players have been able to match the level of performance that the 25-year-old Belarusian has displayed in the past two weeks. Despite potential challenges such as being a sophomore season grand slam champion and defending champion, Sabalenka has played with confidence and dominated her opponents. However, it is yet to be seen if she can maintain this mindset and successfully finish the tournament with a win.
Zheng’s main focus for her initial championship should be to compete without any limitations and discover the full potential of her skills and physical abilities. This was emphasized by Li during their first conversation last week.
Li, who came back to Melbourne this year to commemorate her 10-year milestone by participating in the legends’ tournament, pleasantly surprised the young player during an interview. When Zheng sought guidance from her seasoned senior, she was given a straightforward reply: “Don’t overthink.”