Wang Xinyu doesn't have to reflect long to pick her best on-court moment of a long 2021 season.
"When I made my way through the qualies of Wimbledon," the rising 20-year-old says. That result brought back memories of the 2018 tournament, where she not only became the girls' doubles champion but was invited to a special dinner hosted by illustrious compatriot Li Na to celebrate the future of Asian tennis. Alongside Wang Xinyu and her doubles partner Wang Xiyu were fellow Chinese teenager Zheng Qinwen and soon-to-be US Open champion Naomi Osaka.
Wang had in fact already met Li through her father, Wang Peng, the head of the national tennis team, and describes her as "like a big sister". For all the advice Li has given her in person, though, it's a line from the two-time Grand Slam champion's autobiography My Life that has stuck with Wang.
"She writes, 'When you are on court, you are all by yourself,'" says Wang via Zoom from the Upper Austria Ladies Linz. "And I think that's really how you feel during the match. No matter how many people you're travelling with, once you step on court, all the decisions you make are by yourself. That's also what's fascinating about tennis for me. That's challenging and also exciting - when you have the feeling you need to make all decisions by yourself."
Wang has risen to the challenge across a long and unique season. Following her stellar junior career, she was poised for a professional breakthrough after rising from World No.306 to World No.150 in 2019. Then, Covid struck. Like many Chinese players, Wang was cautious about resuming international travel - and when she did so this year, was faced with long stretches of time on the road.
"It's been a tough year for everybody else as well," Wang says. "But especially for us, it's a hard quarantine every time we go back. It's better with FaceTime, and you can message family any time you want. But it was so tough."
Wang's results were slow to pick up; she credits a supportive and patient team around her for getting her through several months where she was beset by minor injuries and early losses.
"It was my first time travelling without my parents," Wang says. "But the people around me said to be patient, not to rush. They said, we know you're going to get there, so just take your time and take care of your body. That was nice for me to hear."
Wimbledon was the turning point. In Wang's next tournament, she made her first WTA semifinal in Prague - where she recalls feeling more relaxed on court knowing it was the last event of her seven-month spell away from home. The trip back to Shenzhen and seeing her family and friends for the first time in over half a year was her off-court highlight of 2021.
Back home, Wang could relax in her favourite ways. There were evening strolls around the Nanshan district, the first place she'd take any visitor to Shenzhen: "Everything is really new there. It's almost like Manhattan, but in the autumn when the weather is a little bit cooler, it's so nice to walk by the river." Yoga has replaced the gymnastics of her youth, which she gave up to focus on tennis after it became apparent that her height would be problematic.
"I remember after school I used to go there for training every day, and I was the tallest of all the others," she says, laughing. "It's so funny, because everyone was in a row like this [gesturing downwards] - and suddenly I was up there like that!"
But Wang's biggest off-court passion is something that keeps her sane on the road as well: reading. Like most tennis players, sports biographies such as Li Na's book are important, but Wang also has more literary tastes. Her favourite author is Haruki Murakami, and while travelling around Europe she has re-read his novel Norwegian Wood for the third time.
"For me, if I have some books I really like, I'll read them over and over again," she says. "Because every time you read it, you find something you didn't notice, or you have a different understanding of it. I've also read Dance Dance Dance - those two are my favourites by Murakami."
Wang returned to action in September, refreshed and ready for wins. A run to her first WTA 125 final in Columbus followed, and in recent weeks she has found further success across Europe.
Reaching the second round in Tenerife as a qualifier and the Courmayeur quarterfinals has lifted Wang to a career high on the cusp of the Top 100 at World No.106. In Linz, she has continued to thrive indoors, qualifying and defeating Kateryna Kozlova from a set down to seal an intriguing second-round clash with No.1 seed Emma Raducanu. And in addition, she also captured the doubles titles in both Columbus and Courmayeur alongside Zheng Saisai.
Wang credits her own experience and a new coach for her rise.
"I think it's been the understanding of the game [that's gotten better]," she says. "Sometimes it's when you're in the moment on court that you figure out that, OK, this point I'm gonna stay calm and stay aggressive, or I'm going to put one more shot in and just make one more rally. Decisions like this, you figure out on court, and that's the part I've most improved."
Since September, Wang has also been working with Iain Hughes, the Briton who formerly coached names such as Elina Svitolina and Belinda Bencic.
"He's given me some tips on how to be more relaxed on court," Wang says. "Sometimes when you're trying so hard to focus on one shot, or one point, that's actually when you get too nervous for no reason and then it's like you don't know how to play. I think that was really useful. It's simple things - like try to breathe in, breathe out; and try to focus on small things that can bring your focus back on court."
This has stood Wang in good stead as she has faced a recurring spectrum of challenging opponents recently. There was former World No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza, to whom she lost 3-6, 6-3, 6-0 at Shenzhen 2020 and 6-4, 6-1 at Miami this March - matches that Wang says are her most important learning experiences.
"To see her fighting for every point on court, that was inspiring me," she says. "And also to see that we are so close - they were both close matches and I had chances to win. That, for me, is a big motivation."
More recently, Wang has drawn one of her best friends on tour, Liang En-Shuo - with whom she won the 2018 Australian Open girls' doubles title - three times since July in Prague, Columbus and Indian Wells. She won two of those contests, but all three went to a deciding set.
"We know each other so well and she knows how I play," Wang says. "You can see by the scores it was never easy. But I'm also happy for her because she made some good results this year as well - I know she's been travelling all the time away from home too. I'm happy to have someone who's by my side off court, but when you're playing against each other on court you can be focused and just enjoy the match."
2021 Prague Highlights: Wang Xinyu d. Liang En-Shuo, R2
In the past month, Wang's repeated foe was another accomplished compatriot - Zhang Shuai, whom she defeated in both Tenerife and Courmayeur.
"It was exciting to play her," Wang says. "She's someone who, growing up, I was watching her matches on TV and now I'm actually playing her. I think they were both good matches. The first one, the score looks easy, but I think it was a tough match."
2021 Courmayeur Highlights: Wang Xinyu d. Zhang Shuai, R2
Although, as Wang points out, the Covid-19 pandemic has made the past two years hard on most people in tennis, it's also undeniable that some have been presented with more arduous challenges than others. World No.1 Ashleigh Barty has led the way in demonstrating resilience while on the road, but attempting to navigate the demands of an international tour and hard quarantine requirements to return home has been a significant issue for Australian and Chinese players in particular.
But while many of Wang's more established countrywomen have dropped in the rankings since the start of 2020, some young Chinese talents have managed to continue rising. (Also noteworthy is 18-year-old Zheng Qinwen, who has compiled a 62-15 record following the tour's resumption last August.) The fortitude they have displayed over the course of one of the most unpredictable and difficult seasons of their careers will bode well for their futures.