Believe In Possibility


It was supposed to have been her finest moment, the big payoff for two decades of playing through a series of potentially career-ending injuries. Peng Shuai had authored a Cinderella run to the 2014 semi-final of the US Open, only the third ever Chinese woman to make it that deep into a Grand Slam in singles. Along the way, she defeated countrywoman Zheng Jie and three seeds in a row, including Lucie Safarova, Roberta Vinci and world number 4 Agnieszka Radwanska, most impressively, without losing a set.
Now, she had a winnable match against #10 seed Caroline Wozniacki for a place in the finals.
That day in New York was a sweltering one, with both players draping ice packs around their necks on changeovers in an effort to keep cool. Almost two hours in, Wozniacki held a slight 7-6, 4-3 lead. What followed next would be a scene that nobody witnessed will ever forget ?Peng collapsing to the ground and grabbing her leg, severely cramping due to heat illness. She was quickly ushered off the court and given medical treatment. Still, the girl from Tianjin wanted to keep on fighting. "I said, 'No, no, no, I don’t want to give up.’ I want to try one more time. And then I come back. I know I’m not going to stay maybe too long, but I just want to try, you know. I just want to challenge her one more time," she said afterwards.
Peng indeed came back on court, but after just five more points, she collapsed again in painful tears, ushered off the court in a wheelchair, her fairy tale run over. That moment, though, would show the world exactly what a kind of fighter Peng was.
Learning to play tennis at the age of 8, Peng adopted an unusual style of playing with two hands on both forehand and backhand, generating flat, hard groundstrokes, which reminds of Monica Seles. "When I was young I didn’t love [tennis]," she recalls. "Now I think I love more than before. I think it brings me a lot of happiness but also a lot of tough times and sadness, they are kind of together. I feel, in the court to play the match, a lot of time you are thinking how to play the opponent. I just love this game. Even if I lose. I really want to enjoy this short tennis career."
That intense of the game is what has helped her through soaring highs and devastating lows on her way to become the current Chinese #1 in both singles and doubles and the only Chinese player, male or female, to reach world number #1 (in doubles, on February 17, 2014).
Peng is known for her sunny disposition and penchant for wearing bright colors, and Peng’s love of the game was put to the test early on. At the age of 12, doctors said she needed surgery to fix a heart defect. "All I thought about was very simple: If I want to continue playing tennis, I need to have this operation. Just that simple. What I learned is, believe in possibility. As long as you work hard, you will succeed in the end."
The persistence and long term efforts gave Peng a early taste of victory. At age just fifteen years and four months, she won her first singles title at Baotou, a $10,000 International Tennis Federation tournament, one tier lower than the tournaments on the professional WTA (Women Tennis Association) tour. On the doubles court, Peng was even more successful, garnering trophies early and often, highlighted by titles at Wimbledon 2013 and the French Open 2014 on her way to amassing a total of 21 titles together with 20 weeks at the number one spot.
However, singles success would prove elusive for Peng. At the WTA tour level, she showed her game can hold up to almost anyone, having beaten a slew of former #1’s including Kim Clijsters, Martina Hingis, Amelie Mauresmo and Jelena Jankovic. She made six final appearances before the memorable US Open but had yet to land her first WTA tour title in singles.
The tennis fates would once again step in, cruelling inflicting another career-threatening injury on Peng in 2015 which required back surgery. Once again, her love for the game guided her decision. "This surgery means I have the possibility to continue playing tennis for three or four more years, and even though I may hurt again, I will never regret it," she said.
Peng would be sidelined for nearly 10 months, from the French Open 2015 to Indian Wells 2016. Returning to the tour as a 30-year-old woman, she would find it difficult just to string two matches together. "After that, for half a year, at WTA tournaments I could not win one round," she remembers. "I even went to play some ITF tournaments ?$50k events I hadn’t played in ten years ?and I could not get past the second round. I had no chance to win."
Once back on Chinese soil, though, the fates finally smiled on her. At the 2016 China Open, after a string of dismal results all year, Peng defeated 6th seed Venus Williams in straight sets in a first round match. One week later, ranked world number 182, she entered the 2016 Tianjin Open as a wild card. Her hometown tournament became the site of her very first WTA singles title while also she won the doubles crown.
"Those experience make you cry, make your heart broken and you will be confused and full of agony, but one day when you can smile with relief and tell it, then you are grown," she said of her comeback from injury.
What does the future hold for the Chinese #1? "I hope I will stay on until 2020 in a doubles," she says. "As for my singles matches, those may go on for one or two more years from now. Although I can’t control it, I will fight to the end. I cherish every moment out there on the court."
Peng Shuai enters the 2017 Tianjin Open as the 3rd seed and will be looking to replicate the success she’s had on home soil, having won both her singles titles (2016 Tianjin Open and 2017 Jiangxi International Women Tennis Open in Nanchang) and 7 of 21 doubles titles in China.