Two Chinese women charged into the semi-finals of the Toray Pan Pacific Open in Tokyo on Friday, a 33-year old and a 19-year old, representing two generations and following in the footsteps of the legendary Li Na, the 2-time Grand Slam champion.
So last year, the first half of the year, I didn't win any matches. I didn't play well. I took a lot of rest and treatment. Last year's 15 wins were in the second half of the year. So it looks the same, every half-year I have 15 wins. That feeling is good! Zhang Shuai
Zhang Shuai, the elder, is ranked 28 in the world, and claimed her first career win over Croatia’s Petra Martic, 7-5 6-2, to advance to the Last 4 where she will face Liudmila Samsonova for a spot in the final, while Zheng Qinwen, the younger, took out American Claire Liu, 6-4 7-5, to meet Veronika Kudermetova.
Two days after saving a match point and withstanding a barrage of 27 aces from 2nd-seed Caroline Garcia from France, Zhang came into this encounter looking for her first ever win over Martic, the Croatian having previously beaten her twice on hard courts.
Zhang broke to open the match, and afterwards Martic went 1 for 5 on break points in the first set, while the Chinese saw only 2 break points in the opener and converted on both.
From 5-5 Zhang reeled off 7 straight games before Martic got herself on the board at 5-1 in the second, and closed out the win on her 5th match point after 1 hour and 22 minutes.
The victory is Zhang’s 34th of the season, more than double her 2021 tally of 15, as she becomes the first Chinese to advance to the Tokyo semi-finals since Li Na in 2009.
“Last year, tough half year,” Zhang said after the match. “I had an injury because, in 2020, I [went] back to China [twice], long quarantine after.
“When I started to play I felt shoulder pain, arm pain, everywhere. So last year, the first half of the year, I didn’t win any matches. I didn’t play well. I took a lot of rest and treatment.
“Last year’s 15 wins were in the second half of the year. So it looks the same, every half-year I have 15 wins.
“That feeling is good!”
Playing Tokyo for the first time in over a decade, Zhang is now into her 3rd semi-final of the season and, earlier this year, she captured her 3rd career singles title in Lyon, as well as maing the final in Birmingham.
Having booked her place in the Last 4, Zhang will face Samsonova for a spot in her 3rd final of the season, after the Russian took out 4th-seeded Garbiñe Muguruza from Spain, 6-4 6-2, in an hour and 22 minutes.
Ranked 30, Samsonova played a clinical match to defeat the former World No 1, taking control from 4-4 in the first set by winning 4 straight games to build a 6-4, 2-0 lead, and finishing off the match with 23 winners to Muguruza’s 11, and breaking the Spaniard 5 times.
Samsonova has now won 16 of her last 17 matches, and has made the semi-finals or better at 3 of her last 4 tournaments.
Meanwhile, Zheng, the younger, hit another milestone in her fledgling career, reaching her first WTA 500 semi-final after striking 28 winners, including 7 aces, against 84th-ranked Liu.
The first set turned on a single break of serve, captured by Zheng in the 7th game, thanks to her stellar work on the forehand and at the net.
The teenager then broke again at the start of the second, ending a 6-deuce tussle with a hefty backhand return.
With both players bidding for a career-best run at this level, edginess crept into Zheng’s game as the 22-year old American showed superb touch at net and broke the Chinese back, twice, but, at 5-5, was let down by her backhand wing.
In the final game, Liu held 2 break points to force a tiebreak, but was unable to convert either.
Zheng’s booming first serve won her 82% of the points whenever it landed, and this got her over the line with consecutive service winners.
19-year old Zheng, who followed her Grand Slam second-week debut at Roland Garros with a first WTA 125 title in Valencia, and a maiden WTA 1000 quarter-final in Toronto to rise to a career-high of 36 this week, will face No 4 seed Veronika Kudermetova in the semi-finals on Saturday.
The Russian came within 2 points of defeat in her quarter-final against Beatriz Haddad Maia, the 5th seed from Brazil, but rallied to win in over 3 hours in the second match of the day, 6-7(4) 7-6(6) 6-1, to survive.
It was a physical match that lasted 3 hours and 14 minutes, in which Kudermetova reeled off the final 6 games to score the win.
Kudermetova is into the 6th WTA 500 semi-final of her career, and only World No 1 Iga Swiatek and No 2 Ons Jabeur have reached more quarter-finals in 2022, with Tokyo being the Russian’s 9th of the year.
Kudermetova’s relentless return pressure was the key to the match, as she generated 15 break points on the Brazilian’s serve and broke her 6 times, striking 45 winners, including 11 aces, in the process.
Haddad Maia countered with 22 winners and, despite the differential, the match was a physical tug-o-war, with both seeing 5-2 leads evaporate before edging the other in their respective breakers.
Kudermetova found herself 2 points away from the loss in the second-set tiebreak at 6-6 before a courageous backhand winner found the line on set point.
It was just the second tiebreak that Haddad Maia has lost all season.
As the match veered towards the 3-hour mark, Kudermetova grew in confidence and conviction, striking crispier groundstrokes down the stretch to win the last 6 games of the match, and improving her 3-set record to 12-5 this season.
Kudermetova is now 8-7 against Top 20 opponents this season, a remarkable shift from her 3-15 record in 2021.