SAN JOSE, CA, USA - Zheng Saisai completed her fairytale week at the Mubadala Silicon Valley Classic with her first WTA crown in San Jose, stunning No.2 seed Aryna Sabalenka, 6-3, 7-6(3).
"I played every match on Stadium Court, and from the first match, I heard so many people cheering for me, and I was surprised because I felt like I was far from home, playing in the States. It turns out there are a lot of Chinese fans and even the local people started to support me after my second match. I really appreciated that."
The Roland Garros women's doubles runner-up scored a statement win over last year's finalist Maria Sakkari in the semifinals and backed it up with her first Top 10 victory since 2017 after one hour and 45 minutes on Stadium Court.
"You don't always want to play too fast, because [Sabalenka] is one of the best at this," she explained after the match. "The tactic was to put the ball deep, and whenever I saw space, to let her run, and then change with a slice or high ball. Had I given the same pace, she would hit winners from any corner, so I was trying to mix it up."
Zheng won a WTA 125K title back in April - upsetting 2019 Wimbledon quarterfinalist Zhang Shuai in the final - but was playing the biggest match of her singles career on Sunday, having reached just one other WTA final last summer in Nanchang.
"After Wimbledon, I was in China and my best friend from Hong Kong told me, 'When you are calm, and not so emotional, you can use your brain and play your best tennis, but you haven't felt that the last few months.' I started to feel like I was dealing with too much pressure and expectation, and so I was trying just to play, in practice and matches, and not think about results. So, I really want to thank her, how she spoke to me after I'd been losing so much.
"It was a problem I fixed this week with a good result here."
Across the net was Sabalenka, who was playing her first final since January, when she won the Shenzhen Open to kick off her 2019 season, and showed encouraging signs throughout the week with wins over Carla Suárez Navarro and an on-fire Donna Vekic, who upset Victoria Azarenka in the quarterfinals.
Still, it was Zheng who enjoyed the quicker start, emerging from an early exchange of breaks to gain the ascendency once more in the fifth game and saving a break point as the Belarusian attempted to level the opening set.
"I was focusing only on what I was doing. If she hit a winner, I felt like it was okay, and more about playing the next shot.
"I was really in the match, and wasn't over-thinking anything. I told myself that this was a normal match, and not a final, and so I was able to enjoy it."
Breaking twice more, the 25-year-old was closing in when Sabalenka suddenly turned the tables, winning three straight games to take a break advantage of her own.
Zheng's consistency proved too strong as she broke back and played a glittering tiebreak to clinch the title, turning the tide on an impressive display of athleticism to track a Sabalenka drop shot.
In all, she maintained clean stats - hitting one more winner than unforced error, while Sabalenka finished the match with a -13 differential - and played her best tennis on key points, converting all five break point opportunities.
"It brings up so much confidence," she said. "I hadn't been winning and then here, I beat many seeded players. But everyone is different, and rankings can't tell you how strong a player can be, because everyone can win if they play well. I'm not going to relax, and feel like I'm unbelievable!"