China’s population may be in excess of 1.3 billion inhabitants but only two of its players had ever reached a grand slam semifinal — until Tuesday.That was when unseeded Peng Shuai put years of frustration, thoughts of retirement and major heart surgery to one side as she blew away Swiss teen Belinda Bencic, 17, at the U.S. Open.
At her 37th grand slam, the 28-year-old was finally into her first semifinals.
The buildup had mainly focused on the young Swiss but it was the little known Chinese — far more recognized as a doubles player — who stole the show with a powerful display.
By so doing, she follows in the footsteps of Li Na, a two-time grand slam winner, and Zheng Jie, who reached semifinals at Wimbledon (2008) and the Australian Open (2010).
“It’s a little bit too exciting,” Peng said on court after her 6-2 6-1 victory, earning a round of applause after pausing as emotion got the better of her.
“I love tennis, I love to play.”
That much is clear from her back story.
Aged 12, Peng went against her family wishes to undergo a major operation to repair a fault in her heart.
The procedure was so complicated surgeons had to access her heart through her left leg but as Peng made clear in a 2008 advertisement, there was one fundamental reason she went through with it.
“All I thought was very simple: if I want to continue tennis, I need to have this operation,” she said in the Adidas advert.
Nearly two decades later, her tenacity was rewarded when she achieved the number one ranking in doubles.
By so doing, she became the first Chinese to ever achieve top spot — whether in singles or doubles, male or female.
Despite the ranking, a player who has never won a singles title revealed she had been wracked by doubts in recent times.
“A career is tough sometimes,” said Peng in victory. “I’ve thought about giving up, stopping playing (singles), because I didn’t know if I can make it, but my coach and parents told me to never give up.”
With her two-fisted ground strokes proving too much for a rattled Bencic, the youngest U.S. Open quarterfinalist since 1997, Peng hit 24 winners.
Although Zheng was the first Chinese player to reach a grand slam semifinal, world no. 3 Li has taken Chinese tennis further.
She won the country’s first grand slam at the 2011 French Open, before clinching a second title at this year’s Australian Open.
No Chinese woman has ever reached the U.S. Open singles final, a record that Peng — who has won two grand slam doubles titles in the last year — will try to correct on Thursday.
She will meet either Caroline Wozniacki or Sara Errani, who meet late on Tuesday, in the last four.
Serena Williams is in action on Wednesday against Italy’s Flavia Pennetta, but she suffered a frustrating day on Tuesday.
Not only did she lose her doubles quarterfinal with sister Venus to Russia pair Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina, but she also suffered an injury scare.
The world No. 1’s right foot had to be heavily bandaged early in the second set of the 7-6 6-4 defeat.
In the men’s event, Gael Monfils was in impressive form as the Frenchman overcame a sluggish Grigor Dimitrov 7-5 7-6 (8-6) 7-5 to reach the quarterfinals at Flushing Meadows for a third time.