A list of fascinating WTA veterans would not be complete without hard-hitting Zhang Shuai of China, who has been a consistent face in the Top 50 for the last two years.
Zhang broke through in 2009 when she claimed a shock victory over then-World No.1 Dinara Safina of Russia at the China Open in Beijing, and she won her first singles title in 2013. Within these last two seasons, the 28-year-old was able to put all of the pieces together and claim a constant position in the world's elite.
Here's a snapshot of an exquisite season in 2017 for Zhang, and what could be another fantastic year to come in 2018.
1. Zhang has improved dramatically in the last two years, and has maintained an elite position. Just two years ago, Zhang was struggling with motivation after a disappointing 2015 season. Since then, the Chinese No.2 has put together two exceptional seasons, finishing in the Top 40 of the WTA singles rankings in 2016 and 2017.
In an exclusive interview this week with wtatennis.com, Zhang points to a couple of events during the late summer which spurred her on to a splendid finish of the 2017 season. “Right after Chinese National Games led me to so much confidence, because I learned a lot of things from there.”
“And when I played Karolina Pliskova in the US Open third round,” a match where Zhang led the then-World No.1 before succumbing in three tight sets, she found “very, very impressive.”
These events were emblematic of Zhang’s wonderful second half of the year: she compiled a 28-6 win-loss record since Wimbledon.
2. Winning the second title of her career in Guangzhou was a euphoric moment. After the US Open, Zhang moved to the Asian swing. She had fond memories going back to the Guangzhou International Women's Open in 2017, as she had won her heretofore sole singles title there in 2013.
“I feel a strong attachment to Guangzhou because I won my first title here,” Zhang said after her quarterfinal win. “I think I always play well here.” She proved that early in the tournament, racing into the semifinals with the loss of only three games in her first three matches.
Zhang had sterner tests against Russia’s Evgeniya Rodina in the semifinals and Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia in the final, but prevailed to take her second WTA singles championship, overcoming Krunic in the third set with an ace on match point.
“It was a wonderful feeling when I made an ace at the match point,” Zhang told wtatennis.com. “In Guangzhou, the weather conditions are super difficult for everyone, and people say nobody can win a second time in Guangzhou Open history. But I’m very lucky I did. That’s a really special event for my career!”
3. The end of the year went perfectly. Zhang went on to finish her 2017 campaign with a 10-match winning streak in November. First, she claimed the title at the $100,000 ITF Challenger event in Tokyo, with a championship match victory over Mihaela Buzarnescu, who won seven Challenger events in 2017.
Two weeks later, she won the second WTA 125K Series event of her career at the Hawaii Open in Honolulu. Zhang was determined to capture the Hawaii Open after she was disheartened by a loss to American CiCi Bellis in the 2016 final, and did just that, rebounding from an 0-6 first set to move past South Korea's Jang Su Jeong in a three-set final.
"This year I came back [to Hawaii], because last year, I had a little feelings, really sad, because I made the final, but [didn't] win," Zhang said after the match, during her on-court post-match interview. "That’s why this year, I came back. I’m so happy to win this year."
“As the runner-up, back in Hawaii, I only had one goal,” Zhang recently told wtatennis.com, referring to her unfinished business. “Also, in my career, I have done nine matches won in a row, that’s why I needed ten! Also, a lot of Chinese fans were there and gave me super support.”
4. Zhang is very humble about her talent, and insists that hard work is the key to her continued success. Zhang’s reluctance to give herself credit for her own achievements is an endearing trait, and she keeps her eye firmly fixed on her own feelings of improvement rather than her ranking.
“I do remember a long time ago, some people said, ‘you have no talent to be a Top 50 player, your only ability is hard work, otherwise you have nothing,’” Zhang expressed to wtatennis.com. “[My response is] Okay, let me focus on my hard work, I don’t care about the ranking number right now. I’ve already spent my energy on hard work, and fight for every single point.”
Zhang proved the doubters wrong with her consistent top-tier placement. Nevertheless, she still credits her team with her excellent year. “I think my tennis is getting much better, my coach and my physio both did a great job -- one works for my tennis improvement, one maintains my physical fitness. That’s why I’m very confident of my new season.”
5. The Australian swing is an emotionally powerful place for her to start the year. Zhang will open the season during the second week of 2018, at the Hobart International. Then she will move on to the Australian Open, the site of the biggest turnaround of her career, nearly two years ago.
After a lengthy losing streak at Grand Slam events, Zhang qualified for the 2016 Australian Open, only to face off against 2nd-seeded Simona Halep in another of a long line of difficult first-round draws.
“Absolutely, Australian Open is the most important of my career,” Zhang told wtatennis.com. “Everyone knows I fell down 14 times in a row of first round in any Grand Slam, and the fifteenth against World No.2 looked impossible again.”
Zhang persevered, and outhit Halep for the emotionally uplifting first-round upset, and continued all the way to the quarterfinals. Since then, her ranking and performances have been consistently solid.
“Finally, I changed my history,” says Zhang. “It was extremely motivating for myself.”
6. These solid results mean there’s “no reason to change” what works. Throughout the off-season, Zhang has basically stuck with what has worked for her over the last two years. “My team, I’m feeling stronger and confident to work with them,” she told wtatennis.com. “No reason to change.”
However, a few minor tweaks were made this year, as she has been training with compatriot Lu Jing-Jing, and is “very thankful” to hit with an athlete who she considers to be a very strong player.
Over the holidays, Zhang also met with her former coach, and “talked about how we built my career when I was a younger girl. You can find out huge motivation from the conversation.”
But, overall, Zhang is going to stay the course and simply try to keep improving, as she has over the last few years. “At the moment, my goal is challenging myself, and my history in any Grand Slam.”
Given her performances over the last two years, this perspective will likely lead to many more accomplishments in 2018.