(CTN News) – On paper, it reads like a fairytale written by a Chinese tennis aficionado.
Almost precisely ten years after Li Na won the Australian Open to become China’s first Grand Slam champion, a new, youthful Chinese player will aim to follow in her footsteps.
When Zheng Qinwen steps onto centre court on Saturday, she will become only the second Chinese player in history to reach a major final.
That means she will carry the expectations of over a billion Chinese people and diaspora, putting extra pressure on the 21-year-old, who only entered the top ten this week.
Many of these new fans have devoured the story of the bright-eyed child star who sat around a television screen to watch Li Na, her hero, win her first award for China at age eight.
Zheng Qinwen: The 21-Year-Old Chinese Tennis Sensation on the Verge of Stardom
“She planted a seed in my heart that I too wanted to do that and be like her… and even better,” Zheng Qinwen said of Li’s 2011 Roland Garros victory in a Tennis Channel interview last year.
The Australian Open organisers have also capitalised on that narrative, hosting a surprise encounter at this year’s tournament.
During an interview, the Slam shared the footage of the retired champion sneaking up on Zheng Qinwen. Zheng, captured in front of cameras, is stunned: “Wow, Li Na, big sister!” She gasps and hugs her hero.
“This is my first time speaking to you,” she says, looking partly at Li and half at the camera. “She’s so beautiful in reality!”
After reaching the grand final, Zheng Qinwen may have only recently become a household name, but she has been on the radar of those in the know for quite some time.
Last season, she worked with top coach Wim Fissette, who returned to Naomi Osaka this year. Zheng Qinwen then rejoined with her Spanish coach, Parc Reberre, who co-coached Coco Gauff to her US Open victory last year.
“We’ve seen a number of waves of Chinese tennis players who have been solid – by which I mean top 30, even top 20 on occasion… but no one really rivalled Li Na until Zheng Qinwen,” says Mark Dreyer, author of athletic Superpower, a book about China’s athletic ambitions.
“But the main difference is that she’s only 21. Li Na broke through when she was 29, somewhat later in her career. This could be significant because Zheng is so young and has such a long career ahead of her.
Zheng Qinwen, like Li Na, has prominent sponsors and management, including Nike and IMG.
“I can tell you they’ve been talking about her internally as a potential top five player for at least a couple of years,” Mr. Dreyer said. “So this has been a long anticipated moment I think.”
After making her WTA debut in 2022, she broke the top 100 last year and advanced to the quarter-finals of the US Open, where she fell to the world number two Aryna Sabalenka.
The similarities between Zheng Qinwen and her idol go beyond her playing ability; she exudes the same joyful, welcoming demeanour on court that Li Na fans all over the world adore.
Her old teacher, Fissette, described her in the New York Times as witty and as enthusiastic about karaoke as she is about tennis.
She also attracted herself to female fans in her maiden season by discussing the period pain that ended her otherwise outstanding run at the 2022 French Open.
“It’s just girl things, you understand. The first day is always difficult, and then I have to perform sport… I wish I could be a man on the court, but I can’t at the time. If I didn’t have stomach ache, I think I’d be able to enjoy more, like run faster, hit harder, and put in more effort on the court,” she explained.
According to Mr Dreyer, Zheng “ticks every box” for worldwide sporting greatness, including her fluency in English.
“People really warm up to Zheng Qinwen when she does on-court interviews, just like they did with Li Na,” he says, mentioning the former champion’s well-known sense of humour.
“Zheng Qinwen is not quite at the same humour level, but she’s engaging, she’s smiley and articulate – people warm to her.”
Furthermore, talents such as Li and, potentially, Zheng are “the best soft power that China has,” he claims, citing that, unlike other athletes, tennis players receive significant global exposure thanks to the international tournament circuit.
Li Na established the standard for how many Chinese players now compete on the circuit: in independent teams with foreign coaches, with the sanction of national sports officials but outside of their authority.
However, those at the top face a difficult decision.
Many feel Peng Shuai, the former world number one doubles player, was effectively exiled from the sport after accusing retired Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli of sexual abuse.
Tennis as China’s Soft Power: Li Na and Zheng Qinwen’s Impact on the Global Stage
Her disappearance sparked global anxiety for weeks before she reappeared in public through published photographs.
Peng’s treatment two years ago is still fresh in the minds of tennis fans. Commentators have posted “Where is Peng Shuai?” alongside various footage of Zheng’s tournament plays.
Following Zheng’s semi-final on Thursday, there were comments on Chinese social media implying that state CCTV, which live-streamed the match to record watching numbers, delayed the transmission of her post-match interview.
“Yes, she will face difficult questions… but honestly, as a 21-year-old, what is she expected to say? I mean, this is an untenable position. We all know she can’t come up there and tell whatever the situation is,” Mr Dreyer argues.
She shouldn’t have to be restricted in her ability to “develop the way she wants and to be a personality and character without being too worried about what she does or doesn’t say”.
He added that all four Chinese players who reached a Grand Slam semi-final, except Peng Shuai, were spotted courtside in Melbourne this week.
Li Na and the other celebrities will likely return to Rod Laver Arena on Saturday night to “jiayou” or cheer on their country’s next tennis star. Zheng’s performance has attracted many Chinese viewers to the Slam, gradually positioning itself as the Asia-Pacific competition.
However, Zheng Qinwen is the underdog heading into the finals, having not faced a single-seeded player on her journey through the open.
Sabalenka, on the other side, is on a 13-game winning streak and defeated Coco Gauff in the semifinals. Zheng Qinwen herself has described her as one of the tour’s most powerful hitters.
But she refuses to allow the history of the event to affect her. When asked about fate at Thursday’s post-match press conference, she brushed it off. And Li has been providing her advice, Zheng Qinwen claims.
“She said don’t think too much, just go for it.”