NANJING: After an unsuccessful attempt to establish herself on the WTA tour, China's Zhang Shuai, once seen as a prodigy with the ability to reach the elite level of women's tennis, says she wants to start all over again next season.
Following her giant-killing performance at last month's China Open - where she upset then world No 1 Dinara Safina of Russia in the second round, the 20-year-old has lifted herself to No 154 in the world, only 22 spots lower that her career best ranking of 132 set in July 2007. She also became the fourth-highest ranked Chinese player, behind Li Na (15), Zheng Jie (35) and Peng Shuai (47).
"Gradually, my confidence is returning but it has not been easy," Zhang told China Daily during the Mercedes-Benz China Grand Prix here where she teamed with Sun Shengnan to win the women's doubles title.
"I had been struggling for almost two years but I finally broke out. Many people told me that they had been waiting for that moment for a long time."
It did not take long for Zhang to establish herself in the tennis world. She played her first ITF tournament at 14 in 2003 and, within four years, she had become a dominant force on that circuit. She won nine titles in 2006 and 2007.
Like other fast-rising tennis professionals, Zhang thrust herself into the WTA tour when her world ranking allowed her to do so. However, the confident player did not expect she would have to wait almost three years for a victory in the main draw after playing her first tour event in Guangzhou in 2006 as a wildcard.
In 2007, she played in main draws three times, followed by another six appearances last year, but each time she fell in the first round. Those defeats turned out to be morale-sapping for the ambitious Zhang and brought her back to earth.
"I was very confident because of my excellent performances on the ITF circuit where I won almost every tournament I entered. Everything went smoothly but when I started to play on the (WTA) tour I found everyone was very strong. I was not prepared for that."
Last year, Zhang returned to the ITF circuit and, to her surprise, she seemed to have lost the weapons she used to dominate that classification. Up until now, she has not been able to add to her list of ITF titles, the last of which was won in 2007.
"I was knocked down and had a lot of doubts," Zhang said. "I was so confused. I felt tortured."
Fortunately, she was awarded a wildcard to last month's China Open, which featured the world's top 50 players, and Zhang did not waste the opportunity. She defeated world No 33 Iveta Benesova of the Czech Republic in the first round to claim her first main-draw victory on the WTA tour.
She then shocked the world by upsetting Safina in straight sets, making her the third Chinese players to defeat a reigning world No 1 after Zheng and Li.
"The match against Benesova was one of the best I have ever played," Zhang said. "I put my whole heart and soul into it."
Later that month, the Tianjin native showed her true potential again by upsetting Zheng in the semifinals of the National Games.
"I am back on track," she said. "I hope I can break into world top 50 next season."