ANNING, China - No.1 seed Zhang Shuai was pushed hard by wildcard Ma Shuyue in the quarterfinals of the Kunming Open, but came through the clash of Chinese compatriots 7-5, 6-2 in one hour and 25 minutes to make her first semifinal of the season.
19-year-old Ma has impressed on the ITF World Tour this year, winning her first two W25 titles in Altenkirchen in February and in Hong Kong two weeks ago - the latter of which she backed up this week with wins over Xu Shilin and No.7 seed Danielle Lao to extend her winning streak to seven and reach the biggest quarterfinal of her career.
Today, the World No.234 gave a good account of herself in her first match against a Top 50 opponent, with her power and aggressive intent resulting in four aces and several scorching winners. Ma's tenacity was also to be admired: three times Zhang moved up a break, and three times Ma raised her game to break back immediately, hammering the ball from line to line and exhorting herself enthusiastically all the way.
But Zhang, ranked 192 places above her younger countrywoman at World No.42, was able to draw on her greater experience to withstand Ma's forceful play. Deftly out-manoeuvring the rookie, the two-time WTA titlist broke again for 6-5 - and this time, came up with some clutch serving to close the set out at the second opportunity.
After coming so close but getting eked out of the first set, Ma began overpressing in the second. As the teenager's groundstrokes began sailing over the baseline, Zhang kept up the pressure with strong returning and canny redirection of Ma's pace; the 30-year-old also found success with judicious use of high, topspin shots that pushed Ma behind the baseline and allowed Zhang to sneak into net.
Breaking her opponent twice, the Australian Open doubles champion still had to save two break points when serving for the match - but unreturnable deliveries and a pinpoint forehand winner down the line fended them off and set up a match point, which Zhang took as Ma sent a forehand wide.
In the semifinals, Zhang will face 2018 Australian Open junior champion and World No.228 Liang En-Shuo, who reached the biggest semifinal of her young career when 2016 champion Zhang Kai-Lin retired trailing 7-6(1), 4-1. The 18-year-old Chinese Taipei player, who came from a break down in the first set and impressed with her ability to open up the court, will break the Top 200 as a result.
The second semifinal will find No.2 seed Zheng Saisai take on qualifier Kaylah McPhee. Zheng, a three-time champion in Anning during its years as an ITF W100 event, overcame Romania's Alexandra Cadantu 6-1, 6-4, while World No.281 McPhee beat fellow qualifier Chihiro Muramatsu 6-2, 6-4 for a career-best result. The 21-year-old Australian reached her first ITF W25 final in Mildura in February, beating Destanee Aiava en route, but prior to this week had never reached a semifinal above W25 level.