Published7 hours ago
On paper, it sounds like a fairy tale penned by a Chinese tennis fan.
Almost exactly 10 years since Li Na won the Australian Open to become China’s first Grand Slam champion a new, young Chinese player will be attempting to follow in her footsteps.
When Zheng Qinwen walks out onto centre court on Saturday, she will be just the second Chinese player in history to reach a major final.
Which means with her will be the hopes of more than a billion Chinese people and diaspora – just a little extra pressure on the 21-year-old, who only broke into the top 10 this week.
Many of those new fans have lapped up the narrative around the bright-eyed young star, who huddled around a television screen to watch Li Na, the woman who would become her hero, pick up her first trophy for China aged just eight.
“She put a little seed in my heart that I also wanted to do that and to be like her… and even better,” Zheng said of Li’s 2011 Roland Garros victory in a Tennis Channel interview last year.
Organisers at the Australian Open have also seized on that narrative, staging a surprise meeting at this year’s tournament.
The Slam published the moment the retired champion sneaks up on Zheng during an interview. Zheng, caught in front of the cameras, is stunned: “Wow Li Na, big sister!” she gasps, hugging her hero.
“This is my first time speaking to you,” she says, half to Li, half to the cameras. “She’s so beautiful in reality!”
‘This could be huge’
She may have only become a household name since securing her grand final place this week, but to those in the know, Zheng’s been on the radar for a while now.
Last season she worked with top coach Wim Fissette, who this year returned to Naomi Osaka at which point Zheng reunited with her Spanish coach, Parc Reberre, who co-coached Coco Gauff to her US Open win last year.
“We’ve seen a number of waves of Chinese tennis players who have been solid – by which I mean top 30, even top 20 on occasion… but no one really to rival Li Na until Zheng Qinwen,” says Mark Dreyer, author of Sporting Superpower, a book on China’s sporting ambitions.
“But the big difference is she’s only 21. Li Na broke through when she was already 29, much later in her career. For Zheng, because she’s so young and has such a long career potentially ahead of her, this could huge.”
Like Li Na was, Zheng is backed by major sponsors and management – Nike and IMG.
“I can tell you they’ve been talking about her internally as a potential top five player for at least a couple of years,” Mr Dreyer says. “So this has been a long anticipated moment I think.”
After debuting on the WTA in 2022, she cracked the top 100 last year before reaching the US Open’s quarter-final, where she lost to the woman she will meet on the court this Saturday, the world number two Aryna Sabalenka.
The parallels to her idol aren’t limited to just her playing performance – Zheng exhibits the same bubbly, friendly persona on court that won Li Na fans the world over.
Her former coach Fissette described her in the New York Times as funny and as passionate about karaoke as she is about tennis.
She also endeared herself to female fans in her debut season, after talking about the period pain which brought to an end her otherwise impressive run at the 2022 French Open.
“It’s just girl things you know. The first day is always so tough and then I have to do sport… I wish I can be a man on court, but I cannot in that moment. If I don’t have my stomach pain I think I could enjoy more, like to run better and to hit harder, to give more effort on court,” she said.
Mr Dreyer notes Zheng also “ticks every box” for global athletic stardom, not least because she is fluent in English.
“People really warm to Zheng when she does the on-court interviews just the the way that they did with Li Na,” he says, noting the former champion’s famous sense of humour.
“Zheng is not quite at the same humour level, but she’s engaging, she’s smiley and articulate – people warm to her.”
But what’s more, stars like Li and now potentially Zheng are “the best soft power that China has”, he says, especially as, in contrast to other athletes, tennis players get great global exposure because of the international tournament circuit.
Li Na set the standard for how many Chinese players operate on the circuit these days: in independent teams with foreign coaches, under the approval of national sports authorities but outside of their control.
But for those at the top there’s also a tricky line to walk.
Many believe former world number one doubles player Peng Shuai was essentially exiled of the sport, forced into retirement in 2021 after she accused retired Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual assault.
Questions over her disappearance fuelled global concern for weeks before she was seen again in public in released images.
That treatment of Peng, only two years ago, still lingers in the minds of tennis fans. Under some videos of Zheng’s plays in the tournament, commentators have written: “Where is Peng Shuai?”
And there were comments on Chinese social media after Zheng’s semi-final on Thursday suggesting that state CCTV, which livestreamed the match to record viewing numbers, delayed broadcast of her post-match interview.
“Yes she’s going to get awkward questions… but frankly, as a 21-year-old, what is she supposed to say? I mean it’s an impossible situation. We all know she can’t get up there and say this or that about whatever the situation may and may not be,” Mr Dreyer says.
She should just be allowed to “develop the way she wants and to be a personality and character without being too worried about what she does or doesn’t say”.
He noted that of the four Chinese players who have ever made a Grand Slam semi final, all except Peng Shuai were spotted courtside in Melbourne this week.
There’s a high chance that Li Na and the other luminaries will be in Rod Laver Arena again on Saturday night to “jiayou” or cheer on their country’s next tennis star. Zheng’s performance has drawn many Chinese spectators to the Slam, which increasingly pitches itself as the tournament of the Asia-Pacific region.
But Zheng is very much the underdog going into the final: a lucky run has meant she has not faced a single seeded player on her way through the open.
Sabalenka, on the other hand, is on a 13-game winning streak and knocked out Coco Gauff in her semi. Zheng herself has called her one of the biggest hitters on tour.
But she says she won’t let the history of the moment get to her. When asked about destiny at Thursday’s post-match conference, she laughed it off. And Li’s been giving her tips, Zheng says.
“She said don’t think too much, just go for it.”