DOHA, Qatar - When the new WTA rankings are released on Monday there will be much for Chinese tennis to celebrate. Not only will two-time Slam champion Li Na rise to a career-high of No.2 to build on her status as the highest-ranked Asian player ever in singles, but her countrywoman Peng Shuai will do one better, taking over the No.1 ranking in doubles to become the first Chinese No.1, male or female, in the history of tennis.
With her childhood friend and partner Hsieh Su-Wei by her side, Peng clinched the No.1 ranking on Thursday with a 62 64 win over Irina Buryachok and Vitalia Diatchenko in their opening match at the Qatar Total Open.
"It was this year one of the goals," a bubbly Peng said. "For sure I never had the experience so I'm very happy."
It's been an incredible 12 months for Peng and Hsieh, who built their record as a team in finals to an astonishing 9-0, winning a WTA-best five titles, including Wimbledon and the TEB BNP Paribas WTA Championships. With Hsieh's help, Peng rose from No.56 at the start of the season to No.3, and Hsieh was right behind her at No.4. While the pair would have loved to hold the No.1 ranking together - Peng edged forward by winning a title with Zhang Shuai in Pattaya City this year - Hsieh couldn't be happier for her friend, who she's known since they were barely teenagers.
"I didn't think this was coming so quick," Hsieh said, clearly happy to achieve a career-high ranking. "I'm excited for this, especially for Peng, she's No.1. I'm more excited that she's got No.1."
The two friends, who joke that they fight all the time on court, played and traveled together as juniors but didn't come back together until 2008. It didn't take them long to find their groove. Peng and Hsieh went on to win their first two WTA tournaments together, first in Bali in 2008 and then Sydney in 2009. But nothing foreshadowed their remarkable run over the last year. Hsieh's coach Paul McNamee, himself a former ATP doubles No.1, credits their history for how quickly they gelled as a team last year.
"Well first of all they're good friends, which makes a difference," McNamee said, recalling their 15 years of friendship. "Both speaking Chinese is a big help because they don't have to translate all the time. And their games are completely different. This is the main thing, the fact that they complement each other, they have completely different strengths. In doubles you want to play with someone who's not like you."
It's a funny comment to hear considering one of the unique elements of their partnership is they both play with two hands off both sides, a product of being too undersized when they first began playing tennis. But Peng (who once described their dynamic as "a chemical reaction, an explosion") enjoys her role as the baseline stalwart and marvels at Hsieh's prowess at the net.
"We played together when we were 13 and 14 years old," Hsieh said. "It helped a lot because we understand each other's games, how we go, and on the court where we should run. This is helping a lot."
Peng agreed. To an extent. "Sometimes it helps but sometimes it doesn't work because we're fighting, you know?" she said with a laugh. "But I think the good parts are much more than the bad parts, so it's okay."
It's more than okay. It's enough to be No.1.
~ Courtney Nguyen is a freelance tennis writer based in Northern California. She is the blogger behind Sports Illustrated's Beyond the Baseline and co-host of the No Challenges Remaining podcast.