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Recharged Zhang back in the swing

Chinese veteran returns 'full of energy' after taking long break from WTA Tour

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-03-01 09:11
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Zhang Shuai returns to Karolina Pliskova during their match at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships on Feb 19. [Photo/Agencies]

Refreshed and recharged, Zhang Shuai has returned to the women's professional circuit with a spring in her step and hoping the best tennis of her career is yet to come.

Zhang's game may need a little more work as she shakes off the rust, however the 35-year-old looks as fresh and energetic as her younger self this week in Austin, Texas, where the two-time major doubles champion is in just the second week of her WTA return after taking a long break last season.

"I am really excited to get back to the familiar cycle of business and life on the tour," the veteran said after her straight-sets doubles win with partner Anna Danilina of Kazakhstan against Italy's Lucia Bronzetti and China's Wang Xiyu on Wednesday at the ATX Open in Austin.

"I feel like I'm happier, more positive and full of energy again. I am fully recharged and looking forward to getting going," said Zhang, who played her first tournament in six months last week at a WTA1000 event in Dubai.

Known as one of the most resilient and hardworking players on the tour, Zhang, who reached her best singles ranking of No 22 in January last year by reaching the Australian Open fourth round, decided to call off the remainder of her 2023 campaign before the US Open, citing physical and mental fatigue as a result of playing through all the pandemic-affected seasons without returning home for over three years.

The tipping point came after a 16th straight singles loss, against Russia's Anna Blinkova in Montreal in August last year, when Zhang admitted it was time to listen to her body and take a rest from her life of constant travel.

Although that losing streak extended to 17 after a straight-sets defeat to Karolina Pliskova last week in Dubai, Zhang has drawn enough motivation from her doubles wins to try and stay the course this season.

"Coming back to the tour I hope I can embrace all the challenges all over again with a positive mindset week after week," said Zhang, who broke early in both sets against Pliskova but eventually paid for a lack of match sharpness against the former world No 1.

"I've been looking forward to every match again since last week in Dubai. I will try to improve my form one match at a time.

"From how I feel now physically and mentally, I am sure I can finish this season, without a doubt."

Now ranked No 718 due to her lengthy layoff, Zhang is in the main draw, via protected ranking, at next week's WTA1000 tournament in Indian Wells, California. There she will join another six Chinese women, including Austin quarterfinalists Yuan Yue and Wang Yafan, who face each other on Friday in the WTA250 event in Texas.

Led by world No 8 and Aussie Open finalist Zheng Qinwen, China's younger generation have been going from strength to strength in Zhang's absence, with a record seven Chinese in the WTA's top 100.

Zhang says their emergence is a source of motivation for her.

"A lot of younger players are on the rise and there are many new faces to be excited about. I have high expectations on myself competing with and against them on the court," said Zhang, whose first singles-draw major win after an eight-year wait in 2016 in Melbourne helped inspire China's next-gen.

After taking a total break from tennis to allow her body to recover and spending quality time with family, Zhang returned to the national training base in Beijing in October. Training with a male junior as her hitting partner over the past four months, she has picked up her game and, more importantly, the desire to keep going.

"Everybody was asking 'where have you been?' since I returned last week," Zhang said.

"I finally went home. I am very happy and I am rested."



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