MELBOURNE, Australia - This was a win for the journeywomen. The ones who slog away on tour, always fighting for ranking points and prize money in the shadow, hoping that their day will come. Because as cruel as this sport can be - good results forgotten every Monday, nearly every week punctuated by a loss - your luck can change at any moment. For China's Zhang Shuai, her moment finally came.
On Tuesday night, Zhang, ranked No.133, walked onto Margaret Court Arena under a cloud. The 26-year-old, who reached a career-high ranking of No.30 in 2014, was 0-14 in main draw matches at the Slams. Across the net from her was the No.2 player in the world in Simona Halep, a back-to-back quarterfinalist here. And to add more stakes to the night, Zhang took the court knowing this very well could be her last appearance at a major.
Less than 80 minutes later, Zhang was in tears as she pulled off the biggest upset of the tournament so far, beating Halep 6-4, 6-3 to earn her first win at a major.
Three months ago, Zhang was hovering just inside the Top 200. She was struggling to win matches and even qualify for tournaments, dipping back and forth between the WTA and ITF levels.
"Feeling so sad," Zheng told reporters. "Couldn't win one match even. Ranking from 30 drop to 200 [in] only few months, so feeling so sad."
It was then, after the US Open, that she says she considered retirement.
"Before when I have this thinking [about retiring], everybody say, No. C'mon, you're a great player. You can come back soon. You have to keep going.
"But I feeling sad. I didn't know how can keep going. But when [they] say, Okay, retire, no problem [and] nobody said, No, I'm feeling no, I want come back. I want [to] try one more time, only one more time, yeah. If no good, I say, Okay, I will try last tournament Australia Open. If Australia Open not good, maybe finish tennis.
"But I never think I can win in the here, win the first round."
To break her Grand Slam duck, Zhang played as good of a match as she's played in years. Playing with no pressure and with the support of her coach and family, she rode the support of the crowd and took the match by the reins. Behind a firing forehand that kept Halep on the run all night, Zhang finished the match with 31 winners to 24 unforced errors.
After the match, Zhang said the bigger courts suit her. "Feels more exciting and so many people supporting me watching the match, so feeling more relax. I want to show how good I am."
"I think wasn't my good day, but I give her a lot of credit because I think she played really well," Halep said. "She played without fear and she hit every ball. So she had good rhythm. I think I played a little bit too short in the first set. Then she was dominating me because she felt the ball really well."
Said Zhang: "I think the last three matches [in qualifying] help me a lot for [confidence]. Especially last round, final round, play against Virginie Razzano. Very tough match. 8-6 in the final set. So give me a lot [confidence] and feeling very good."
You know a result resonates in the locker room when players puts down their knives and forks to celebrate:
So happy for @zhangshuai121.. Hard work during tough times always pays off! Enjoy! ?
In preparation for possibly playing her final Australian Open, Zhang convinced her mother and father to come along on the trip. Neither had ever traveled with her. She wanted to give them a glimpse into the life that she leads and the sport she loves.
"This is big-time for me," Zhang said. "Because I think, Oh, maybe this is last time in Australia Open, so I wanted they coming to maybe see last match in Melbourne.
"I want [them to] come to see the last 20 years what I'm [doing]. This is my life already like 20 years. They never see. So I want [them to have the] feeling [of] what I'm [doing]. So, yeah, this is so lucky my parents coming and I win."
For now the retirement talk is on hold. These two sets of tennis on a warm Melbourne night have reinvigorated Zhang, filing her with belief that the best is yet to come.
"I'm training hard, more hard than before," she said. "I didn't think in two months I can win [against] the top-two player. Feeling like dream coming true, yeah."