Zhang Shuai: From ball girl to verge of semi-finals

The 27-year-old had a stroke of fortune in the fourth round when Madison Keys was badly hampered by injury, and her quarter-final is kindly too as she will face unseeded Briton Johanna Konta.

Zhang Shuai poses with Margaret Court.   -  Reuters

Chinese qualifier said she was acting as ball girl for Sam Stosur just days ago — before a fairytale run which has left her on the verge of the Australian Open semi-finals. Zhang, ranked 133rd in the world, hadn't won a Grand Slam match in 14 attempts before this month but she has now put together the best run by a Chinese player since the retirement of Li Na.

The 27-year-old had a stroke of fortune in the fourth round when Madison Keys was badly hampered by injury, and her quarter-final is kindly too as she will face unseeded Briton Johanna Konta.

With both Zhang and Konta playing their first Grand Slam quarter-final, Wednesday's match presents a tremendous opportunity for either player to extend their campaign into the last four. For Zhang, it's a mesmerising turn of events since she was picking up balls for Australia's Stosur, the 2011 US Open champion, before the tournament.

"She was playing against a left-hander in the first round. My coach is left-handed. We talked, (and said) maybe Sam needs a left-hander to warm up," Zhang said. "Because my coach always picks up ball for me, I wanted to also one time pick up balls for my coach," she explained.

The training session didn't do the trick for Stosur, who lost to southpaw Kristyna Pliskova in the first round, while Zhang started by stunning world number two Simona Halep and has not looked back.

Comparisons 'irrelevant'

Reaction so far in China has been muted, but it will explode if there are signs that Zhang could follow Li by becoming the country's second Grand Slam singles champion.

"Li Na did you see this? Go China!" said one user on China's Twitter-like Weibo, where footage of Zhang's latest win gathered more than 1,000 messages of support.

"China needs this kind of talent. I hope you can continue on like this, and bring more glory to your country," wrote another.

China has been waiting for an heir to the 2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open winner who retired in late 2014, although few would have tagged Zhang as the next player to break through. Zhang's current ranking makes her fourth in the list of Chinese players. She has only one title to her name, from Guangzhou in 2013, and achieved her career-high ranking of 30 in July 2014.

However Zhang, who has been working with the Chinese Tennis Association since she was 12, could be a late bloomer in the mould of Li, who was 29 when she won the 2011 French Open.

As for Konta, she is maintaining the upward trend set when she reached last year's US Open fourth round, the highlight of a break-out season when she leapt more than 100 rankings places. The 24-year-old, ranked 47th, was once known for her nervous disposition but she has been serenely cool in Melbourne, notably in her tense three-setter with Ekaterina Makarova in the last round.

She praised Zhang's "incredible journey" — but said there was point comparing the Chinese player's progress with her own.

"I think Shuai Zhang is actually on a bit more of an incredible journey than myself. She won her first main draw match at a Slam. I think that's an incredibly special moment," Konta said. "She's still in the event here. She's come from qualifying. I think she's doing unbelievably well. So all credit to her for that. (But) in terms of comparing my journey to hers, that's a very irrelevant question for me to answer."