SHENZHEN, China - After making the perfect start to the season by lifting the Australian Open trophy in Samantha Stosur’s home country, the No.7 seeds are hoping to come full circle and finish the year with a win on Zhang Shuai’s home turf at the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.
Entering their last match of the round robin with a 1-1 record, their final clash against No.6 seeds Barbora Krejcikova and Katerina Siniakova was a must-win affair. They got the job done in dramatic fashion, coming back from 5-1 down in the second set and saving seven set points on the way to a 6-3, 7-6(7) victory.
“We just stayed positive and we knew, okay, even though we’re 5-1 down in the scoreboard, it’s actually still very close,” Stosur told wtatennis.com afterward. “Those first four or five games of the second set, almost all of them was a deuce game. We knew we were only losing it by one point every time, and we felt like we could do better.
“I mean, you never know if you can come back from 5-1 down, especially with a short deuce [no-ad scoring], but we kept trying to do the right thing and play every single point. And it worked out.”
Having paired up sporadically in the past, a strong finish to 2018 - highlighted by a run to the US Open semifinals and a trophy in Hong Kong - prompted the pair to commit to playing together regularly this season.
“When we played the US Open, both of our coaches said one day for sure we can win the Grand Slam,” Zhang recalled. “So we said, ‘Okay, we’ll try!’”
Their coaches’ hunch turned out the right and pair were immediately rewarded: they dropped just one set along the way to their first Grand Slam title as a team with a dominant run to the Australian Open crown.
“It was absolutely amazing,” Stosur said. “We could feel the excitement getting a little bit more each match. And to win at home… I had lost in the final like 13 years before - and I had two match points in that match! - so to finally win the title in Melbourne, it was great.”
For Zhang and Stosur, who are primarily focused on singles week in and week out, the WTA Finals experience in doubles has turned out to be a refreshing change of pace. The pair finally get the chance to practice together on a regular basis - a rarity for the Chinese-Australian duo.
“I think that’s one thing that we’ve really found beneficial,” Stosur admitted. “We got here a few days before, and we’ve practiced together every day. And already knowing who your opponents are the day before, you can be very specific in practice. Getting to talk about things, spend more time - it can only help you.”
Through to the semifinals in Shenzhen in her tournament debut, Zhang also carries the flag for her country as the last Chinese player left standing in the doubles after Xu Yifan - partnered with Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski - went 1-2 in the group stage.
“I think it’s very good for the tournament and for the Chinese fans,” Zhang acknowledged. “I know my sponsor Gemdale is happy too. It’s always nice to have a player from the country playing.”
“Yeah, every time we were coming back in that second set, you could hear the crowd getting louder and louder,” Stosur said. “Lots of ‘jiayou’, and ‘jiayou’ for me as well. It’s so nice, it’s always good to feel that support. So for me, I just get to ride on the back of Shuai here and enjoy her being Chinese.”
“For me, it’s so special,” Zhang added. “It’s the first time I play this tournament, and it’s also in my home. For Sam, she wins here many times, so maybe this feels less special?”
“No, not at all, it’s still very special,” Stosur said.
“It’s special to play with me!” Zhang replied with a grin.
No.7 seeds Samantha Stosur and Zhang Shuai will take on No.3 seeds Timea Babos and Kristina Mladenovic on Saturday for a spot in the final of the Shiseido WTA Finals Shenzhen.