Zhang Shuai: The new 'little flower' of Chinese tennis?

Zhang Shuai of China reacts during her fourth round match against Madison Keys of the US at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, Australia, 25 January 2016 Image copyright EPA
Image caption Chinese media have held up Zhang as an example of perseverance

With China's Zhang Shuai making it to the Australian Open quarter-finals, all eyes are on the 27-year-old tennis player who had until now been a perennial Grand Slam loser.

Chinese media have lost no time in feting Zhang for her achievements - even though they pale in comparison to that of other homegrown tennis darlings such as Li Na - and have held her up as a shining example of perseverance.

Out of reach - till now

A native of the port city of Tianjin, Zhang was a product of China's gruelling athletic system and started training at the age of six.

She has won on other tennis circuits, but a Grand Slam match victory was always elusively out of reach - until this fortnight, she had lost all 14 matches she contested, the worst record by any player in the top 300.

Chinese media have called this streak her "blossoming" after years of hard work, though it has acknowledged she is a late bloomer.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Zhang started training for professional tennis at the age of six

"To get one's first Grand Slam win at the age of 27, Zhang Shuai's fortune indeed comes a little late," one editorial on news portal said, before noting that Li Na was a late bloomer too.

Zhang was quoted in Guangzhou Daily as saying that prior to last week's stunning win over world number two Simona Halep, she had wanted to quit.

"I was tired of this life, I didn't want to compete, and even was always thinking of ending the match quickly... But now everything has changed, I will focus on playing good tennis, whether or not I win or lose," she said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Zhang was ecstatic after her win over the USA's Madison Keys on Monday

On microblogging network Weibo, netizens have been cheering her on.

"I still remember your string of defeats in 2014 and there were so many people who cruelly insulted you... now the young lady has won, I feel that my steadfast belief [in you] has also won! Don't stop trying!" said Weibo user Bielikefu.

'The little flower'

With her entry into the quarter-finals, Zhang has now earned her place among the "little flowers of tennis" generation of notable female players, noted China Daily sport columnist Liu Hao.

"This year, under unfavourable circumstances, she has suddenly exploded. Some say it may be luck, but really it is her strength and indefatigable perseverance over the years... Nothing is impossible now, she has broken the 'curse of the tour'."

Even the queen of Chinese tennis Li Na, whom Zhang has paid tribute to, has championed her.

She told Sina Sports: "Nobody knows how much pressure [Zhang] has had to bear... I know she is strong enough. I've told her before to give herself another chance."

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Li Na has been attending matches at the Australian Open

But the question is where Zhang will go after this tour.

She told BBC Five Live's Russell Fuller in Melbourne that after this tournament she "needs a long break".

"I don't want to play too much. I want some more time for my life," she said, adding that she is keen on opening a coffee bar.

China's latest "tennis flower" may also want to go back to her roots quite literally - she reportedly has a passion for gardening.

Guangzhou Daily quoted her as saying that the one thing she wants to do most, apart from playing tennis, is to "farm... and live the rural life".

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