Thursday 28 January 2010
By Charlotte James
Asked to single out a player who has chipped in time, energy and funds in the name of a good cause, Kim Clijsters, Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Rafael Nadal probably spring to mind.
But long before these tennis humanitarians dug deep in the name of a good cause another of their stock was donating cold hard cash – namely a Wimbledon prize money cheque – to provide aid to earthquake victims.
In 2008, Chinese world No.35 Zheng Jie walked away from the All England Club with two important distinctions. She was the first wildcard to reach the women’s semifinals at Wimbledon and the first Chinese player to make a Grand Slam singles semifinal. What she walked away without was a penny of the £187,500 she earned for achieving these record-breaking feats, donating it all to the victims of the earthquake that killed 60,000 people and made another five million homeless in her home province of Sichuan.
Renowned on tour for her sweet, considerate nature, it’s perhaps unsurprising that on reaching this, the second Grand Slam semifinal of her career, she was more concerned with the manner of her winning than the victory itself. “Yes (I’m) so happy, but last point she do the double‑fault, (so) not really,” she told journalists after beating Maria Kirilenko 6-1 6-3 at the quarterfinal stage.
It’s not the first time the 27-year-old has risen to prominence at Melbourne Park. In 2006 she teamed with Yan Zi to win the Australian Open women’s doubles, China’s first ever Grand Slam title.
In 2007, Zheng missed most of the season with a recurring left ankle injury but she rebounded strongly in 2008, reaching third rounds at the French Open, US Open and Olympics and that Wimbledon semi against Serena, the greatest singles performance in Chinese tennis history to that point.
In 2009, her best performances came at Monterrey where she was a semifinalist and at Los Angeles where she reached the quarters. In May she became the first Chinese player to crack the world’s top 15 after reaching the second round at Madrid.
And last season was significant for Zheng off-court as well as on, the current world No.35 breaking away from the China Tennis Association that had managed her since 2003 (and to which she paid 65 percent of her winnings) to handle her own career, coached by her husband Chang Yu.
“Self-management means great freedom as well as great risk,” she said in December after a year out on her own. “For example, I made good money in 2009, but I have to maintain my performance every year to ensure my income.
“There will be a big loss if I drop in ranking or injured. In the past, such loss would be taken by the state system.”
The risk appears to be paying off for Zheng at Australian Open 2010. In reaching the semifinals she has scattered seeds, claiming the scalps of No.22 Daniela Hantuchova, No.4 Caroline Wozniacki and No.6 Venus Williams.
But while Zheng’s separation from the China Tennis Association won’t be helping that organisation’s bank balance, her burgeoning success, along with that of fellow top 100 players Li Na and Peng Shuai, and Athens Olympics doubles gold medalists Li Tin and Sun Tiantian, has caused the profile of tennis in China to soar in recent years.
“I feel (it) is very quickly going up, tennis in China. We have the good tournament, China Open (and) from last year you can see lot of (coverage of tennis) from the Chinese newspaper coming from China. I think we need more top players for the (media to) support the sport in China.”
Next up in Melbourne Zheng faces one of three tennis heroes, Belgian second-careerer, Justine Henin. “Graf is my favorite player, number one, Justine is number three (and) number two is Roger,” she says.
“First (reason) I favour her is (that she is) so strong the mentally. I watch her play always… enjoy to watch her for play. She just come back, second tournament I think, she do this so well. Every match is so tough, but she coming to the semi, so you know she always strong for the body and mentally.
“It’s tough for me, but I’m so happy I can play against her, because her is my favorite player. If I lost, I don’t have everything (to lose), I just want to play my tennis.”
No stranger now to the pointy end of Grand Slam competition, Zheng says that Melbourne Park holds a special place in her heart. “I think Australia is lucky for me because I win the first Grand Slam doubles title in Australia,” she says.
And like fellow Chinese semifinalist Li Na (who was the first Chinese woman to win a WTA Tour title at Guangzhou in 2004 and against whom she played the first all-Chinese tour singles final at Estoril in 2006) Zheng can’t wait to see if she can re-write the record books again today and become the first Chinese player in history to reach a Grand Slam singles final.
“I am so enjoying (this tournament) because every match is tough,” she says. “I start, the first round is three sets, the second round is three sets. I hope I can go far way. I know it is big challenge, but just (taking it) step by step.”