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Zheng Jie plays her rare matches in the Rod Laver Arena as though they may be her last, and that sense of urgency is working well for her.
Zheng Jie of China hits a return to Samantha Stosur of Australia during their women's singles match at the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne, January 16, 2013. [Photo/Agencies]
Appearing on the center court of the Australian Open for the first time since 2006, Zheng flashed back to the warm atmosphere and her nervousness walking into the 15,000-seat arena in her first major final.
"It's still fresh in my mind. When I stepped on, I felt almost choked by the spectacular scene and I asked my partner, Yan (Zi), ‘why is it so hot today?' But she told me, ‘It's not hot, it's because you are too nervous'," Zheng recalled of the 2006 doubles final in Melbourne.
"Maybe I was too excited. It's getting better now because I've played on many big courts on the Tour, but I still get extra motivation playing there."
Zheng overcame those nerves seven years ago to win the country's first doubles Grand Slam championship, then built on that on Wednesday when she defeated local favorite and No 9 seed Samantha Stosur, 6-4, 1-6, 7-5, to advance to the third round.
Zheng, who made the fourth round last year, said fear of losing on her "lucky" court helped her to come back from 2-5 in the deciding set.
"For one moment, the 2006 experience suddenly went through my mind and I thought maybe I won't have many chances to play here again. So I gave all I had and fought to the end. That might have helped me to deliver more."
After sending Stosur packing after the 162-minute fight, Zheng took her on-court interviews in English and apologized to the crowd for breaking their hearts.
Zheng had defeated Stosur at the Sydney International last week, also in three sets.
"I appreciate the fans here because they have always been supportive of Chinese players," she said. "But there is only one winner in a match, and I don't want to be the loser."
Boasting a huge, kicking serve and big forehand, Stosur has been a continual headache for Chinese players as she has won all six encounters against the country's leading player, Li Na, while also holding a 4-0 edge over Peng Shuai.
However, Zheng seems to have found a winning formula against China's nemesis thanks to her husband and coach, Zhang Yu.
"Zhang's serve is similar (to Stosur's) and I practice returns with him every time before facing Sam. Once I can handle her serve, I can start playing to my tempo and hit more shots," Zheng said.
Des Tyson, the Australian national junior coach, who instructed Zheng at a Chinese youth camp in early 1990, credited Zheng for her consistency at the baseline.
"Zheng reminds me a bit of Lleyton (Hewitt), running well across the court and making the most of her talent," the 47-year-old told China Daily before the match.
"Technically, Sam has to dominate the points a little bit earlier. Be more aggressive with returning and run Zheng a lot. Zheng is very consistent, while Sam can be up and down. Once Zheng gets established in a rally, the chances are she will win."
Stosur, who also suffered an early defeat (first round) last year, attributed the loss to Zheng's fierce will to win.
"She always hangs in there and fights hard. I know that she never gives up. I was certainly well aware of that," said the disappointed Brisbane native at the post-match media conference.
"As soon as you start getting in a bang-bang, hitting it hard and low over the net match, that's not my style. That's exactly what she wants to do."
Earlier, in the doubles, Peng and partner Hsieh Su-wei of Chinese Taipei beat Klara Zakopalova and Jarmila Gajdosova, 6-1, 6-4, while Zhou Yimiao and Duan Yingying of China stunned Anna Tatishvili and Andreja Klepac, 1-6, 7-6 (5), 7-5, to reach the second round.
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