NEW YORK -- When Zhang Shuai thinks back to the first chapter of her career, one that saw her go winless in her first 14 Slam appearances, the affable 33-year-old could only laugh.
"This year, I already have three third rounds," Zhang said after her third-round win at the US Open. "Oh my god, I won six matches! Before I couldn't win one match in many, many years. How happy!"
With her run to the Round of 16 at the US Open, the Chinese veteran has now made the second week at all four majors. It's easy to forget that six years ago she had one foot out the door.
Zhang had thoughts of retiring and opening a café at the end of 2015 when her friend Sam Stosur convinced her to give it one more try. Zhang snapped her Slam drought with a win against No.2 Simona Halep in the first round of the 2016 Australian Open, where she went on to make the quarterfinals.
"That's why when we meet some player who wants to stop or feeling sad after the match, I always tell them next match, see how you are better," Zhang said. "When I started the tour, how bad [were my] results? No one was badder than me. [These girls] much better than me, right? You guys are still young. Keep trying."
Since then she has won two Grand Slam doubles titles with Stosur and nearly jumped to No.1 in doubles this summer before Gauff sealed it for herself by winning the Toronto title. This season in singles, Zhang has excelled, particularly on quicker surfaces.
She won her third career title on the indoor courts of Lyon and made her first WTA 1000 quarterfinal in four years in Cincinnati, defeating Naomi Osaka and Anett Kontaveit.
"I think her and Ons [Jabeur] are probably one of the most liked people on tour," Gauff said. "You never really meet someone who dislikes her. I got to play doubles with her. I played her in Miami Open. That was tough. I think I won in straight sets, but it was a tough match.
"She congratulated me when I was No.1, even though I took it from her. So that's what sticks out about me. I'm just happy that tennis has someone like her in the sport."
The US Open has been a historic one for the Chinese players. Along with Zhang, Zheng Qinwen, Wang Xiyu and Yuan Yue have advanced to the third round, the first time four Chinese women have made it that far at a Slam in the Open Era. On the men's side, Wu Yibing became the first Chinese man to make the third round of a major.
As the oldest of the bunch, Zhang was asked if she feels like a mentor to the younger set.
"No, I'm good friends with everyone," Zhang said. "I'm trying to not think about my age. At Wimbledon in the second week when I was going to practice and I wanted to take a basket of balls. They said I'm sorry, we don't give juniors this basket.
"See? I look even younger."
But with age comes wisdom, and Zhang offers a keen perspective on how the game and the tour has changed over the years. Among the young Chinese players, like 19-year-old Zheng, who is primed for a breakthrough or 21-year-old Wang, who became China's first junior girls' champion at 2018 US Open, Zhang is the first to celebrate the improved professionalism among them.
"First time I reached main draw at 2008 US Open, I played Kuznetsova," Zhang said. "She's No.2 or 3, for sure I have nothing to beat her. I come alone, I have no coach, no team. I don't know anything. I was just a new person coming to here. Now the [18-year-olds] have a team. They have coach, physio, fitness coach, family."
Contrasting it to her own experience of coming to the US Open for the first time 15 years ago, Zhang said all she had was a passport and $1,000 dollars from the national team, which was handed off to her at the airport.
"How can I beat a Top 3 player? Impossible, right? Even when I'm on the court, when I lose a point or win a point, I don't know who I'm looking for because I'm alone.
"So totally different. This is why so many young players can play good because they are already so professional."
Whether it's Gauff or Zheng, Zhang marvels at the talent among the younger set. After facing Zheng at a lower-level tournament in Dubai last year, Zhang walked away thoroughly impressed by the teenager's powerful game.
"This is why I didn't go back to China to play the national tournament because I have no chance," Zhang said, jokingly.
"I'm not surprised they can do this because in China [there are] so many great players. But because the last two years with Covid or National Games or we go back and have to quarantine, a lot of tournaments they didn't play. They didn't come and travel and join the tour. That's why the last two years it looks like Chinese tennis is going down or not a lot of high-ranking players.
"But it doesn't mean we don't have good ones. We have so many good ones. So for sure they did a great job and we have a lot and maybe more coming."