NANCHANG, China - Having spent six months on the sidelines between last September and this March, No.6 seed Zheng Saisai confirmed that she is back in business at the Jiangxi Open, outsteadying qualifier Karman Thandi 6-4, 6-0 to make the first quarterfinal of her comeback.
The final second-round match also continued a strong showing for local favorites in Nanchang, with six of the last eight spots occupied by Chinese players - and a home finalist guaranteed with Zheng's win completing an all-Chinese top half of the draw.
The 24-year-old has been racking up the match wins at 125K and ITF level since her return to the game, coming into this week with a 26-10 record and titles in Zhengzhou and Quanzhou, but only got off the mark at WTA level at Wimbledon, where she made the second round. Today's result, though, puts Zheng into her first WTA quarterfinal since Stanford 2016 for the loss of just seven games in total - the least dropped of any of the quarterfinalists.
Over the course of an absorbing first set, though, Thandi put her stamp on the match in a display of raw potential. The 20-year-old, who this week became the first Indian player to win a WTA match since Sania Mirza's final singles victory in Indian Wells in 2012, possesses a booming first serve and a huge forehand - and both came to the fore in bailing her out of numerous tight situations, including fending off three break points in the very first game.
Though Zheng would capture the break two games later thanks to a dead net cord, Thandi kept up the pace with aggressive play that saw her fire 15 winners over the course of the set - and hit back in the eighth game, unleashing some ferocious returns to level the scoreline at 4-4.
The ninth game, on the WTA debutante's serve, proved pivotal. Over the course of four deuces, both players summoned their best tennis of the day as the set hung in the balance. Zheng showcased the range and versatility of her game, sneaking into net to knock off volleys and scurrying around the court before nailing a brilliant forehand pass; Thandi saved a first break point with her third ace of the day (out of six in total) and a second by smacking a forehand off a tricky Zheng slice.
On the third, though, it was the World No.112's creativity that won the battle, though: a short slice dragged Thandi out wide, and Zheng calmly slotted a backhand down the line - a shot with which she demonstrated pinpoint accuracy time and again today. A game later, the home favorite had sealed the set at the third time of asking.
In the second set, Thandi's inexperience showed. With Zheng rock-solid on defence and now able to expose her opponent's movement by steering the ball down one line after another, the Indian player began to hit out rather too wildly, with 15 of her 40 unforced errors racked up in the final six games.
Zheng, by contrast, was going from strength to strength in front of her home crowd, conjuring up exhibition-level trickery at times: to move up a double break, she rushed the net off a return before coming up with a drop volley and then a lob volley to win the point.
After one hour and 37 minutes, the two-time WTA 125K champion sealed victory on her first match point with a big backhand winner to set up a quarterfinal against another qualifier, compatriot Xun Fang Ying. The 23-year-old overcame a 0-3 head-to-head deficit - in which she had never won a set - to defeat Lu Jing-Jing 6-4, 7-5 and make her maiden WTA quarterfinal.
"I took advantage of my opponent's shortcomings to win the match," said Zheng after her win. "It was a tough match and I kept fighting for a long time." Though the 23-year-old Xun has far less experience at this level than the No.6 seed, Zheng is not underestimating her next rival. "In my next match, the opponent is quite competitive because she has a strong forehand skill," she pointed out.
Elsewhere, Liu Fangzhou upset No.8 seed Han Xinyun 6-3, 6-3 to reach the second WTA quarterfinal of her career following Nanchang 2016; Liu will face No.2 seed Wang Qiang in the last eight.