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Mighty Mouse: Zheng Jie stays defiant – “I wanted to show everybody”

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ZHENG JIE recalls humorous stories about overcoming her lack of height to help win China’s first Grand Slam title and become the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam singles semi-final. This year, the five-foot four-inch slugger has won her 15th WTA doubles title, reached the Wimbledon doubles semis, played her seventh WTA singles final and won two more Asian Games medals, as the Sichuan-born 31-year-old continues to defy the odds.

 

October 6, 2014: In a sport dominated by tall players, Zheng Jie has carved out a groundbreaking career, despite coaches belittling her chances of making it in the pro ranks due to her five-foot four-inch frame.

 

2014-Zheng-Jie_Sport-Asia.com_IMG_5539_300x300After Li Na became the first Chinese player to win a WTA singles title in Guangzhou in October 2004, Zheng became the second in January 2005 when she triumphed in Hobart, with the-then 21-year-old beating Li – her elder by 16 months – on the way to the final before demolishing Gisela Dulko 6-2, 6-0.

 

In January 2006, Zheng and Yan Zi earned China’s first Grand Slam title when they won the Australian Open women’s doubles, after coming from behind to beat Sam Stosur and Lisa Raymond in the final.

 

Zheng and Yan also won the Wimbledon and Asian Games doubles crowns that year, and eventually claimed 11 WTA titles in 20 finals from 2003 through 2009. The duo also won bronze at Beijing 2008, the second of three Olympics Zheng has competed in.

 

Zheng, who peaked at No. 2 in the doubles rankings, has since won WTA titles with Chan Yung-jan of Chinese Taipei, Maria Kirilenko of Russia, compatriot Peng Shuai and Sania Mirza, partnering the Indian star to victory in New Haven this year.

 

2014-Zheng-Jie_Sport-Asia.com_IMG_5513_300x300Zheng has also carved out a solid singles career, winning four WTA titles in seven finals. After her Hobart breakthrough in 2005, she won twice the following year, including beating Li to win the Estoril Open in Portugal in the first all-Chinese WTA singles final, with Li retiring ahead of the third set. She also won her second gold at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha by beating Sania Mirza in the singles final.

 

Arguably her most notable achievement was at Wimbledon in 2008, when – as a wildcard – she beat then-World No. 1 Ana Ivanovic on her way to becoming the first Chinese to reach a Grand Slam singles semi-final, losing to Serena Williams. Soon after, she became the first Chinese to break into the world’s top 15 in singles.

 

In the 2010 Australian Open, Zheng reached her second Grand Slam singles semi, along with compatriot Li Na. Zhang recently competed in her third Asian Games (2002, 2006, 2014), helping China secure silver in the women’s team event in Incheon and bagging a bronze in the mixed doubles with Zhang Ze.

 

Interview SportAsia

 

At five-foot four-inches tall, how difficult has it been for you to succeed in tennis?

I had bad moments since being a kid, because I’m not tall. Even when I was ranked in the top two in the national juniors and had the chance to play the Junior Fed Cup, I was never in the junior national team. Because I’m so short, all the coaches said, ‘Maybe it’s difficult for her to become a professional player’. So, yeah, these were bad moments for me, but they also pushed me a lot. I wanted to do something to show everybody.

 

When you were growing up, who was your role model in tennis?

Zhang Depei (Michael Chang). Before, my coach always told me: ‘You see he is also not tall and he can win a Grand Slam, so you must believe you can do it’. I saw him in Grand Slams and we talked. He can speak Mandarin so well, it’s amazing. [Kei] Nishikori did so well in US Open and I believe he has given him a lot of help.

 

Zheng Jie (right) and Yan Zi had to convince security guards they weren’t junior players before they won the 2006 Australian Open women’s doubles final for China’s first-ever Grand Slam title. Photo: AFP.

Zheng Jie (right) and Yan Zi had to convince security guards they weren’t junior players before they won the 2006 Australian Open women’s doubles final for China’s first-ever Grand Slam title. Photo: AFP.

What was the reaction like when you and Yan Zi won China’s first Grand Slam title at the 2006 Australian Open?

It was like a dream. Right now I still remember before the final, we went to the centre court to warm up. Because we were so short, the security guards said: “These two girls are playing in the juniors; they shouldn’t be here.” Even Yan Zi, she’s skinny and also not so tall. It was so funny then. But otherwise, it was like a dream, because we beat so many good teams.

 

How did you feel when you became China’s first Grand Slam singles semi-finalist, at Wimbledon in 2008?

For me, I still want to thank Wimbledon for giving me a wild card, as I made the semi-final from it. In 2007, I had a big problem with my ankle and I had a big surgery, so my ranking dropped down to 200-something. After my surgery, my husband [Zhang Yu], who used to coach the China men’s team, came to support me and gave me a lot of support. We worked so hard, travelling and practice, as it’s always a very difficult time after you come back from surgery.

 

I think the Wimbledon result for me was key to opening the door and gave other [Chinese] players more confidence, because before, when we practised in the national team, I was the short one without too much power, so maybe now it was like, ‘Oh, Zheng Jie can do it, so can we’. That was my biggest result.

 

Zheng was a popular competitor at the inaugural Prudential Hong Kong Open, having been a regular visitor to Hong Kong since 1997, “when we still needed visas”. Photo: Halo Studio.

Zheng was a popular competitor at the inaugural Prudential Hong Kong Open, having been a regular visitor to Hong Kong since 1997, “when we still needed visas”. Photo: Halo Studio.

Did you expect Li Na to have the career she’s had?

Early on she stopped for two years to go to university. I think she’s a very good player, she has such a strong body, but before she was well known, her concentration on the court was up and down. These past five years, she had a big change, she’s more professional, and you could see her going up and up.

 

Do you think your Wimbledon semi-final helped her believe she could do it as well?

I don’t think it helped her in particular. I think it helped all the Chinese girls to believe we can do this.

 

You, Li Na and Peng Shuai have led Chinese tennis for so long. Zhang Shuai (25) has recently come through, but which of the young players from China should we look out for?

I don’t know which one is the best, but we have Duan Yingying, the tall one, Zheng Saisai, Zhang Kailin, Wang Qiang and Zhu Lin, so there are four or five girls and there’s not much difference between them.

 

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Zheng (far right) won her singles match in the Asian Games women’s team final in Incheon, but China lost 2-1 to Chinese Taipei to take silver. From left: Duan Yingying, Zhang Shuai, Zheng Saisai and the diminutive Zheng. Photo: AFP.

I think this is very good for the girls. Sometimes if there’s only one, she can feel safe in being the best junior in China, but if you have five or six, everybody wants to be No. 1, so everybody’s working harder and harder. I think this is good.

 

Aside from being shorter than most of your opponents, what other difficulties did you face early in your career, especially with so few Chinese mentors?

Language was difficult for us. Before we couldn’t speak English and we couldn’t understand other players, we couldn’t really get into the tennis world. Now we can speak better English, so it’s better. We have more friends from other countries. We know many players from all around the world.

 

Which non-Chinese players do you know best?

I guess all of my doubles partners, like Vania King, Andrea Hlavackova (who recently partnered Peng Shuai in the Wuhan Open and China Open) – she’s a very good girl – and Kimiko [Date-Krumm] and more girls from Asia, because we are similar thinking.

 

When you look at Kimiko (now 44), do you see yourself playing for another 10-plus years?

No (laughs). I’m always joking with Kimiko (laughs again) that I think I have no chance to play like you. She is unbelievable.

 

2014-Zheng-Jie_Sport-Asia.com_IMG_5528_300x300Yes, she’s incredible, but she had 12 years of rest …

Yeah, maybe I can rest 12 years and come back (laughs). But I believe she loves tennis. I look in her face and I can feel she really enjoys her tennis now.

 

Finally, you’ve had a great career, but is there more to come from Zheng Jie?

I don’t want to give myself any pressure at all because I’m 31. Right now I just want to enjoy the tennis and enjoy every match. It doesn’t matter whether I won or lose, just that I try my best in every match – do my best.

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