Beijing: Teenager Zheng Qinwen has lit up the French Open as the newest star to emerge from China, where the coronavirus pandemic and the Peng Shuai scandal has put top-level tennis on hold for more than two years.
The 19-year-old beat 2018 French Open winner Simona Halep in the second round at Roland Garros.
Zheng faces world number one Iga Swiatek on Monday for a place in the quarter-finals after her third-round opponent Alize Cornet retired with a thigh injury.
At the age of six, Zheng’s father encouraged her to try different sports and commit to one of them. She had a go at basketball and badminton before choosing tennis.
Zheng was enrolled in a special residential coaching programme at the age of eight, moving away from her family home in Shiyan, in central China’s Hubei province, to an academy in Grand Slam winner Li Na’s home city of Wuhan.
In 2013, US talent scouts spotted Zheng at an open junior tournament in Florida and she signed her first contract with leading sports management agency IMG at the age of 11.
Zheng is one of the “Li Na generation” of young players who took up tennis after the success of China’s first Grand Slam singles champion, who won the French Open in 2011 when Zheng was eight.
She watches 20-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer at every opportunity.
“I remember sitting in front of the TV watching Federer when I was a child, enjoying every shot... inspiring me,” Zheng wrote on China’s twitter-like Weibo in August.
She uses the same type of Wilson Pro Staff tennis racquet as Federer, once calling it on Weibo a “must-have weapon for killing enemies”.
Zheng has been based in Barcelona for the past two years and is coached by former top-100 men’s player Pere Riba.
Before moving to Spain she trained at an elite tennis academy in Beijing run by Carlos Rodriguez, the Argentine-Belgian coach who worked with Li Na and Justine Henin.
The outspoken teenager has adopted the nickname Ana and she calls herself a “foodie” who likes to “chase dreams” and a video on Weibo in 2019 shows her to be a dab hand at making dumplings.
“The future cannot be predicted, the past cannot be changed,” she wrote on Weibo on the eve of the French Open. “The present is just chasing dreams.”
Zheng has been racing up the WTA rankings since the start of 2021 having won 60 of her last 79 matches at all levels.
She has reached five second-tier ITF finals in that time and won them all, without dropping a set.
Zheng broke into the top 100 in February and is projected to move inside the top 70 for the first time after the French Open.