Ten years after watching Li Na win the Australian Open title, Zheng Qinwen has a first grand slam crown in her sights.
The 21-year-old is the first Chinese player since trailblazer Li here in 2014 to make a grand slam final, where she will take on defending champion Aryna Sabalenka.
Zheng vividly remembers cheering on Li during her victory over Dominika Cibulkova as an 11-year-old alongside her tennis team-mates.
🔟years to the day!👏
— wta (@WTA) January 25, 2024
Three years earlier, Li had become the first Chinese grand slam singles champion at the French Open, and Zheng said: “She means a lot, I think, for all the Chinese kids the same age like me.
“Because I think she’s the first one who won the slams. That’s unbelievable for Asian woman in that moment. She gives a lot of hope, in that moment, to young kids like me.”
Zheng had the chance to meet Li, who is playing in the legends event, earlier this fortnight, with the 41-year-old telling her young countrywoman not to think too much.
Zheng, who will break into the top 10 on Monday, kept her nerve to come through a chaotic top half of the draw, with Sabalenka the first top-50 opponent she will face, and she said: “My dream is not just the final. I’m almost there but I know this little distance is still far away.”
Extra motivation for the 21-year-old came last September when coach Wim Fissette ended their brief partnership to return to work with Naomi Osaka.
Zheng made her feelings known but linked back up with Spaniard Pere Riba, who first began coaching her as a 17-year-old.
He cannot speak highly enough of Zheng, saying: “I never see in my life a player with the work ethic that she has.
“The first week that we started to work, a long time ago, I say, ‘OK, 7am, and then we go to practise’. Then we practise a lot of hours. I say, next day the same, next day the same. I was thinking that after four or five days she’s going to say, ‘I’m tired’.
“Sometimes we are getting angry because she wants to do more and I have to stop her. You can imagine the dreams that Qinwen has, that she really wants to be there in the top, and I’m really, really happy for her because she deserves it.
“Still she is so young. She’s improving every single month and still has a lot of margin to improve. She arrived with very good feelings. She arrived really motivated. And, if she plays her game, she will have her chances.
“But, of course, all of us, we know Aryna and we know it’s going to be a really complicated match.”
The run is another feather in the cap of 35-year-old Riba, who during his break from working with Zheng was part of Coco Gauff’s coaching team for her US Open triumph last summer.
“I think that all experiences is helpful to you,” he said. “Me, I’m a humble guy and I’m trying to learn from everyone. The US Open was really an amazing moment. Of course this experience is helping here.”
Sabalenka was the player beaten by Gauff in New York but the Belarusian has put together an impressive sequence of slam results, reaching at least the semi-finals of six straight tournaments and now bidding for a second successive title here.
She turned the tables on Gauff in the last four and is yet to drop a set.
Known as a very emotional player, Sabalenka has maintained an impressively even keel so far, and she said: “I think I’m pretty calm inside like I am outside.
“I’m defending champion but, worst case, I’m going to lose this tournament and it’s less points to defend next year. That’s helping me to just stay focused and just try your best in each match without thinking about defending something.”
One bizarre superstition Sabalenka has maintained through the tournament is drawing her signature and other doodles on fitness coach Jason Stacy’s bald head.
“Our first day here, there was some kid wanted a ball signed,” Stacy said. “She’s, ‘Ah, no problem’. So she signed my head as a joke.
“Then every day it’s like a routine to sign my head. Non-match day, she just draws some random picture. They played tic-tac-toe on my head the other day. She won, by the way, so it’s good.
“Then on match day she just signs it and does random stuff. Just part of the process.”