For eight long years, Zhang Shuai and Grand Slam tennis simply weren’t friends.
From a 2008 debut at Flushing Meadows, to Roland Garros two years later, and then onward to the full four-stop grind that includes Melbourne Park and the All England Club, the road always stopped in the same place for her: a loss in the first round.
She had an uninterrupted streak of 14 quick-as-can-be exits, from 2008 to 2015 — and during the same period that another Chinese player, Li Na, was becoming a star, winning the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, exploits that fed a tennis boom among their country's growing middle class.
But Zhang is still at it, at age 31, and the latest reward for her if-you-don’t-succeed-try-again persistence is a debut appearance in the fourth round of the French Open, earned, characteristically, the hard way.
Zhang faced 23 break points, and saved 17 of them, in a 2-hour, 12-minute struggle against Clara Burel, ending the French wild-card entry’s run 7-6 (2), 7-5.
Zhang finally put an end to her Grand Slam losing streak at the Australian Open in 2016, not just winning in the first round but making it all the way to the quarterfinals; she also reached that round at Wimbledon in 2019.
Now she is the first Chinese player into the fourth round in Paris since Li in 2012.
Her next opponent is No. 7 seed Petra Kvitova a two-time winner at Wimbledon whose best showing at Roland Garros was a semifinal in 2012. Kvitova beat 18-year-old Canadian Leylah Fernandez 7-5, 6-3 to advance to the fourth round for the fifth time.
Zhang was particularly thrilled with her work at the net at the Court Simonne Mathieu, winning 22 points up there by executing advice from her coach that she end exchanges quickly.
“I still learn," she said, "try to improve.”
DJOKOVIC: ELIMINATE LINE JUDGES
Novak Djokovic thinks it’s time for tennis to let technology take over for good and eliminate line judges entirely in favor of electronic systems.
And, yes, the No. 1-ranked man made a joke about what happened at the U.S. Open — he was defaulted after accidentally hitting a line judge with a ball.
But he was serious about the larger point.
“With all my respect for the tradition and the culture we have in this sport, when it comes to people present on the court during a match, including line umpires, I really don’t see a reason why every single tournament in this world, in this technologically advanced era, would not have” automated calls, he said Saturday after reaching the French Open’s fourth round for the 11th time in a row.
“The technology is so advanced right now, there is absolutely no reason why you should keep line umpires on the court. That’s my opinion,” he said. “Of course I understand technology is expensive, so it’s an economical issue and a question mark. But I feel like we are all moving towards that and, sooner or later, there is no reason to keep line umpires.”
At the U.S. Open, Hawk-Eye Live was used in place of line judges at all but the two largest courts, which did have full complements of officials. It was in his fourth-round match in the biggest venue, Arthur Ashe Stadium, that Djokovic got disqualified when he unintentionally struck a line judge with a ball while walking to the changeover after losing a game in the first set.
Which is why he said with a smile Saturday that if his idea about eliminating line judges were adopted by the sport: “Then I would also probably then have less chances to do what I did in New York.”
FACE IT, STEFANOS
Face it, Stefanos Tsitsipas, your masks are a hit.
The No. 5 seed from Greece showed up for his third-round match at the French Open on Saturday with a pandemic-appropriate facial covering that had a picture of himself drawn on it.
Then Ons Jabeur, the No. 30 seed from Tunisia, arrived sporting one, too, for her post-match news conference after becoming the first Arab woman to get to the fourth round at Roland Garros.
“I asked for it. He was like, ‘No way you’re going to wear it,’” she recalled, saying she told him that of course she would.
After all, as Jabeur explained Saturday: “I’m Team Tsitsipas.”
Tsitsipas said a friend told him he had seen the masks online and asked whether the player knew about them.
“I’m like, ‘No, but they would look really cool and I would like to have some of them,'” Tsitsipas said. “So I bought like 30, straightaway.”
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