In August 2020, a 17-year-old Zheng Qinwen hit the road, often for hours at a time. She was ranked No.630 and had never reached a pro final. Her first stop was an ITF W15 event in Oeiras, Portugal.
"I feel young people have to go out and fight for their dreams," she says via Zoom from Barcelona, where she trains, ahead of leaving for this month's tournaments in Mexico. "I saw people the same age as me much more in front of me. Not their level, just their ranking and their results. Inside I always believed I could be better, I just had to do it. I wanted to do something great in tennis. So because I had this mindset inside, I didn't feel I had to stay at home or go back to China."
Seventeen months and 26 tournaments later, Zheng had catapulted herself to a Top 100 debut. Her dizzying rise consisted of eight ITF titles and an overall 81-18 record (as of the end of January). She cemented her arrival at the tour level during the Australian swing, where she reached her first WTA semifinal, at Melbourne Summer Set 1, and the second round of the Australian Open after making her Grand Slam qualifying debut.
Zheng's ferocious power is the foundation of a game that led her to wins against Vera Zvonareva, Ana Konjuh and Aliaksandra Sasnovich in January. She modelled her aggression after Chinese trailblazer Li Na, whose videos she grew up studying. During Wimbledon 2018, Zheng was invited to dinner with the two-time major champion, alongside Naomi Osaka, Wang Xinyu and Wang Xiyu.
"I remember Li Na's husband talked to my agent, and said I had a very good game and nice technique," Zheng says. "The only problem I have is that I need to learn how to play tennis!"
As a child, Zheng was taught by Carlos Rodriguez, the former coach of Justine Henin, at his academy in Beijing. She credits him with instilling in her "how to be a good athlete and how to be a correct person." But to take the next step in harnessing her power, she began working with Pere Riba Madrid, the former ATP World No.65. Together, they started training on clay in Barcelona.
"He taught me more about being more consistent, not only being just aggressive," Zheng says. "Well, a lot of people told me this before, but he's the only one who has had the patience to repeat it to me every single day until it arrives in my head and comes naturally."
The decision to make clay her default training surface might seem counterintuitive, but Zheng says that it's part of the plan.
"I actually love to play on clay," she says. "On clay, I naturally have more patience than on hard courts. For me, the hard-court game must be aggressive and fast. But when I arrive on clay, my mentality is that now is the time I have to be patient - because it's clay and going slow."
Ultimately, though, Zheng possesses an unshakeable conviction that aggressive tennis is the best way forward. In Australia, she faced the first Top 20 opponents of her career, Simona Halep and Maria Sakkari, losing to both. Nonetheless, Zheng felt that she had been in control.
"They have a similar game for me," she says. "They are consistency players, they are not playing too fast, they don't have really aggressive games. They won by my mistakes because I gave them a lot of easy mistakes. Like I say, I am aggressive but I have to be more consistent. What they taught me is that you can beat an opponent just by consistency."
Indeed, Zheng felt the surroundings were more significant to her learning experience than the opposition.
"When I went back home I thought a lot and wrote down in a book, because those matches gave me a lot of experience in a big stadium and how it's working. To play in a big stadium and to play in a small court on the side are totally different feelings. There's a lot of emotions in the big stadium you have to manage."
Zheng's self-belief also extends to her peers. Born in 2002, the players her age who are still ahead of her in the rankings include US Open champion Emma Raducanu and runner-up Leylah Fernandez, as well as Clara Tauson and Marta Kostyuk. She makes sure to congratulate them on their achievements, while still having them in her sights.
"For the moment, they're the ones leading in front from our age group," Zheng says. "I want to catch up, and their success gives me more insight on how to arrive there. I'll always believe that I could be better."
Zheng's mentality and battle-toughness were honed on the road. She was the first Chinese player to resume international travel in 2020; that year and in 2021, she criss-crossed Europe by car with her mother and team, reluctant to take flights due to Covid-19.
"We were driving from Barcelona to Germany, to Italy, to the Czech Republic," she recalls. "Seventeen hours, 22 hours plus stopping to eat. Looking back, it's like, 'Wow, I can't believe I did that.' Spending one day and a half in a car just to play a tournament - not even a WTA, an ITF. But it was like an adventure. It was a really good experience for me.
"Because going to every tournament was not easy, you really wanted to take your chance. I didn't want to lose in the first round and drive another 22 hours going home. You wanted to do something to justify all the driving."
Off court, Zheng enjoys walking in nature - Wudang Mountain near her hometown of Shiyan is a favourite spot when at home - and listening to traditional Chinese music.
"It's different to English music, which has great rhythm but the sentences have poor meaning," she says. "In Chinese music, we have a lot of deep sentences that make the music very beautiful. They can create big imagination and make you feel that you want to be there. I don't know how to explain, but Chinese people will know what I'm saying!"
It's a "big imagination" that also drives her now. Zheng has envisaged doing great things in tennis for much of her life, and feels 2022 is the year for it.
"Before the Australian Open, I actually had the dream in my head that I could do it like this," she says. "It just hadn't happened yet in reality. Now, I make it happen. And I always believe I can do better."