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Australian Open 2016

I can be China’s second grand slam winner, says Zhang Shuai

Qualifier eases into last 16 at Australian Open after emphatic 6-1, 6-3 victory over American Varvara Lepchenko

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 January, 2016, 1:12am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 January, 2016, 1:12am

Qualifier Zhang Shuai thinks she can become China’s second grand slam winner after easing into the last 16 of the Australian Open with an emphatic 6-1, 6-3 victory over American Varvara Lepchenko on Saturday.

With China’s first grand slam champion Li Na having retired and her fellow trailblazer Zheng Jie looking set to follow, expectations of success were low in the world’s most populous nation coming into 2016.

READ MORE: Fighting farewell for Lleyton Hewitt as Zhang Shuai marches on at Australian Open

Zhang – with a world ranking of 133 – who had never won a grand slam match in 14 attempts before Tuesday, continued to confound that pessimism when she extended her remarkable run at Margaret Court Arena on Saturday.

Picking up where she left off in her stunning upset of world number two Simona Halep in her opener and the two-set victory over France’s Alize Cornet in round two, she dominated Lepchenko to win the first set in less than half an hour.

I tried to treat this like it was the last match of my life. I think I did a great job
Zhang Shuai

Another crunching forehand winner saw Zhang break the Uzbekistan-born world No 51 early in the second set and before too long she was serving for the match at 5-2.

Perhaps overawed by the position she found herself in, the 27-year-old Chinese was broken herself but she stormed back in the following game to seal victory on her second match point when an overwhelmed Lepchenko netted.

“I just wanted to show the best of Zhang Shuai in this match,” she said. “I tried to treat this like it was the last match of my life. I think I did a great job.”

“It’s been an amazing tournament,” she said, close to tears and lost for words. “I just can only think about the next point. I wish I can play another match like this.”

Zhang first came to prominence in 2009 when she became the lowest ranked player to defeat a reigning world number one – Dinara Safina at the China Open, and she was once ranked 30th in the world.

But her serial failure at grand slams and a horror 2015 in which she fell eight times in the first round and six times in qualifying convinced her it was time to call it quits.

Her team told her to give it one more shot at Melbourne Park this year, and she now has a chance to make the quarter-finals.

“This is the best team in my life,” said Zhang in a courtside interview.

Zhang will next face another American in Madison Keys, a semi-finalist last year, in her seventh match at Melbourne Park over the last couple of weeks for a place in the quarter-finals.

Asked whether she could conceivably win the tournament on Sunday week, Zhang did not demur.

“Before, no,” she said. “After today, yes.”