In the Orchid Group at Hengqin Life WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Friday, local favourite and No 12 seed Zheng Saisai needed to win 7 games in her first meeting with 5th-seeded Petra Martic to win the group and make the semi-finals, while the Croat had to defeat the Chinese in straight sets with the loss of less than 6 games to top the group.
"I was pretty tight because I knew I don't need to win the match, so I was like scared a little bit. It's really the first time the feeling how I played -- very nervous." Zheng Saisai
Round robin play often comes down to the minutiae of numbers, something Madison Keys discovered to her cost after scoring a win against Martic on Thursday.
“Apparently I could finish first, second or third still, I have no idea.,” Keys admitted afterwards. “I was trying to figure it out earlier and it hurt my brain, so I gave up.
“I mean, at this point, I can only wait and see what happens with the match tomorrow. So, yeah, I think I’m just going to go and enjoy the city and the day.”
As it happened, despite a win and a loss, Keys briefly topped the group and was then eliminated by proxy.
Aware of the odds, Zheng has been using videos to study her opponent, never having played Martic before and trying to come up with a suitable game plan.
Following her win over Keys, Zheng said: “I am pretty happy about the win today because I didn’t expect to win today, I was just going to fight for it.
“And for the next match, I never played her before, I will look at some videos online and to check where, like where my goals should be to make a plan on how to play her.”
Zheng was given a wildcard for the Elite Trophy following a strong 2019 in which she won San Jose and reached the final at Acapulco, but at the Grand Slams, though, the 25-year-old was knocked out in the first round in each of the majors.
As it happened on Friday. it was Martic who sealed the final round-robin victory in the Orchid Group, 6-4 6-3, but Zheng who qualified for the semi-final by virtue of winning those 7 precious games, even in defeat.
Martic seemed on the verge of qualification herself as she built a 6-4 4-2 15-40 lead, which would have allowed her the opportunity to serve for the match, and clinch victory by losing the 6 games or fewer that she needed to advance.
Zheng, however, sealed a crucial hold of serve that gave her place in the final 4 with some resounding tennis, even though the Croatian capped her week in Zhuhai with the match victory.
The Chinese wildcard joins top seed Kiki Bertens and No 11 seed Karolina Muchova in the semi-finals, with the winner of Friday’s evening match between Elise Mertens and Aryna Sabalenka set to determine the last semi-finalist.
“This is the first time I have this experience. Actually, I knew if I win a set, I for sure would be in, but I don’t know exactly how many games,” Zheng revealed to reporters after the match.
“I was pretty tight because I knew I don’t need to win the match, so I was like scared a little bit. It’s really the first time the feeling how I played — very nervous.”
After losing serve in the first game of the match, Zheng rallied to even the opener at 4-4 by taking back-to-back games, helping her cause towards reaching the magic number.
“After it got 4-4 [in the first set], I knew if I win one more game then I, it is my serve, so I have big chance to qualify, so I start to be so tight and I think I missed like three easy mistakes,” she continued.
“I was a little mad because I couldn’t stop thinking about this, it’s just like really, it’s a normal match, it’s not a normal match, you know, I want to play…but I was a little bit over thinking.
“And the second set, I’m not sure how many games actually, I’m not sure, I was just playing how I can do. It doesn’t matter like how many games I can win, just going to play. I was happy though.”
In her second appearance in singles Zhuhai, Zheng advances out of the round robin stage for the first time, having gone 0-2 in the round robin in her first appearance 4 years ago.
“It’s been a fantastic journey for me. Four years ago I just started my WTA journey and it’s on a rising path,” Zheng told Chinese reporters through a translator.
“I learned a lot by playing with Venus Williams and Madison Keys [in 2015] and I learned how to play with those powerful players, because I know I knew I have a lot of weaknesses at the time and there are many things for me to learn.
“For the past few years there are ups and downs, I experienced some injuries, and this time I did pretty well, the first match is a solid win and today I also kind of passed the test.
“So it’s been an acknowledgment of my effort for the past four years.
“Nothing happens overnight, I believe in making progress step by step, believing in solid training and try to build up my abilities bit by bit and to eventually overcome all the challenges. I’m very happy today.”
Zheng’s progress into the semi-finals keeps local hopes alive as the Chinese faces top seed Kiki Bertens on Saturday for a place in the final.