ZHUHAI, China - The fairytale continues for Zhang Shuai in Zhuhai.
The wildcard won a second straight match at the Huajin Securities WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai, guaranteeing her a place in the semifinals and a first career finish inside the Top 25.
"It's amazing because I never thought I could play this tournament, and now I'm in the semifinals," she told WTA Insider on Thursday. "I prepared a lot for this week, so I'm really happy."
Her storybook season began in Australia by way of Tokyo. Zhang was ranked just inside the Top 200 when she won an inaugural ITF 100K Challenger there last fall - foreshadowing what was to come Down Under. The Chinese No.1 plans to return to the Tokyo tournament next week, where she will be top seed.
"I have a lot of good memories there and want to go back. I also have a lot of friends in Japan and Tokyo; they're waiting for me already, so it's very exciting!
"The tournament has good food, good hotel, and good courts. I always look forward to going to Tokyo."
Zhang's season won't end there. Her final stop of 2016 brings her to Hawaii, fulfilling a lifelong dream.
"I've never had the chance to go. I'm already ranked in the Top 50, so I couldn't enter a WTA 125K event, so I have to thank the tournament for giving me a wildcard."
She found out about the wildcard into Zhuhai three weeks ago in Beijing; she had just defeated Simona Halep for the second time in nine months, the first coming in that fateful first round in Melbourne.
"She's a really great player. My coach always says I have to learn from her, because she plays really beautiful tennis. I like her as a person too; she's a very nice girl.
"It was amazing, even after the Australian Open, I didn't think I could beat her again. But I've since been able to not only beat her, but also other Top 20 players like Timea Bacsinszky and Samantha Stosur.
"Now I believe I can do anything."
That limitless mentality has helped her achieve a career-best season after a year in the tennis wilderness. It was just two years ago that Zhang was ranked in the Top 30 and seeded at Grand Slams, but until beating Halep, she had never won a major main draw match in 14 previous attempts.
"Now I'm more focused on the court, focused on myself. I don't think?anything, really! I'm not thinking about ranking or points; I just try my best, trying to play my tennis and my style. I don't really care about whom I'm playing, or how they play. I just go!"
Zhang plans to roll into the off-season with similar gusto, hoping to maintain the momentum gained from her Asian Swing surge and bring it back to Australia for an encore performance.
"I don't think I'll change much about my pre-season. I'll just try to train hard, give 100% of my heart and focus on tennis. We're always trying to make improvements, so we'll try to do that, too.
"But this year, I played really well, so I think I'm doing things the right way. I just want to keep going."
Forward motion is a recurring motif from Zhang, which certainly makes sense; if you were living her dream, would you want to wake up?
"This whole year has been filled with so many amazing memories. I can't pick just one, but of course, I can't forget the Australian Open. I'll remember that week forever. I also made the quarterfinal at the China Open, now the semifinals here in Zhuhai.
"This year has been a dream come true."
All photos courtesy of WTA Elite Trophy.