MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Zhang Shuai’s transformation from an emotional wreck to a grand slam quarter-finalist has been the feel-good story of the Australian Open but also counts as a triumph of player management by her faithful coach Liu Shuo.
Finding the right words to comfort a player after a loss is one of the tougher parts of a coach’s job, so 37-year-old Liu had to get creative last year as Zhang suffered a crisis of confidence that pushed her to the brink of quitting.
Zhang slumped to her 14th successive first-round exit at the grand slams at the French Open last year, a record among active players in the women’s top 300, and her ranking, which peaked at 30 in mid-2014, plummeted towards the 200s.
As loss piled on loss, Liu used boxing metaphors, the wisdom of Michael Jordan and the lessons from his own low points as a Tour battler who never broke the top 1,000 to garnish his motivational speeches.
Zhang wondered if her coach was “cheating” her into persevering but Liu never had any doubt she would turn it round.
“I told Shuai that she was totally different from other Chinese girls,” Liu told Reuters at Melbourne Park on Tuesday.
”I said ‘one day you will have huge success at the grand slams’. I just felt that for some people who have easy wins in the first or second round, they might not go much farther.
”But if you are always having to battle through the tough times and you never give up, you’ll be a big, big success.
”If you give up there will be no chance to see the bright days. This is what I told her every time that we lost.
“It’s like boxing, if someone hits you, don’t fall down. Just try standing. Maybe there will be a second where you have an opening and ‘bang!’ Just hit.”
That opening came in the most unlikely of circumstances, when Zhang was drawn to play the world number two Simona Halep in the first round, having grafted through qualifying as the world’s 133rd-ranked player.
“Everyone (in China) said: ‘15 first-round exits coming soon’. Nobody believed in her. Maybe only her parents, me and her fitness coach,” Liu said.
Zhang, from the northern Chinese port of Tianjin, had virtually resolved that Melbourne Park would be her last grand slam, so she brought her parents with her to watch her play.
In the lead-up, she and Liu bought lottery tickets with a $15 million jackpot with friends on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
“But I told Shuai, ‘this isn’t a great way to get rich. But tomorrow’s match will take you 50 percent on the way to getting rich, to getting famous’,” said Liu.
“‘So tomorrow, show your best. It doesn’t matter. Even if we lose, we have nothing to lose. If you make it, this won’t just make the national news, this will be all over the world. It’s going to be big.”
Zhang beat Halep 6-4 6-3 to snap the first-round losing streak and promptly burst into tears.
She proved it was no fluke by upsetting seasoned grand slam performer Alize Cornet in the following round.
Her next win over American Varvara Lepchenko made her only the fourth Chinese woman to reach the last 16 at a grand slam after twice grand slam champion Li Na, Zheng Jie and Peng Shuai.
The 27-year-old put down injury-hit Madison Keys on Monday to set up a quarter-final against Sydney-born Briton Johanna Konta, a 47th-ranked opponent enjoying her own fairytale run.
“Nobody could have predicted Zhang would make the quarters here,” said Liu.
Not the media, not the senior mandarins at the Chinese Tennis Association or the high-profile foreign coaches who wrote her off when she trained with the national academy in Beijing.
”They would point to Zhang and say this one has no chance.
“‘She doesn’t have the talent’. But I felt Zhang had the mental side, the psychology,” Liu said.
”They were talking about her physical talent, her explosiveness or her reaction times.
“There are many players in China who have these qualities but they lack the spirit.”
Keeping things calm for Zhang is now Liu’s priority. It is virtually impossible with the buzz her run has created in China.
”The first day when we came here for qualifying nobody talked about us. There were no interviews, nobody cared,“ he said. ”Now, I’ve had to tell lots of Chinese media to keep calm, please don’t give her any extra pressure.
“For sure, I don’t want to limit her, I just want her to be free to play her best tennis at such a great stadium.”
Editing by Martyn Herman