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How can Zhang Shuai re-create her Australian Open magic?

Confidence has carried Zhang Shuai to a new level. EPA/Paul Miller

A year ago, on the second day of the Australian Open, Zhang Shuai walked onto Margaret Court Arena ranked No. 133 in the world. She was playing in her 15th first-round Grand Slam match without a win, facing then world No. 2 Simona Halep.

Everything changed 78 minutes later. Zhang won 6-4, 6-3, looking simultaneously astonished and excited. Her longtime coach, Liu Shuo, sat in the stands with tears in his eyes. Nothing like adversity to create a little magic, right?

Before that win, Zhang even considered early retirement at age 26. "Last year I was feeling really down," she told WTA.com last October. "I was feeling really sad. I felt I was working hard but never won, never play good, never play well."

Zhang's challenge now is re-creating that spark from 2016. Let's look at four points in particular that summed up Zhang's winning formula. The question is, can she do it again when she returns to Melbourne?


Strengths and weaknesses

Zhang played with a necessary desperation against Halep, as though it were the last match of her career. She was aggressive, keeping Halep out of position.

Look at match point: Zhang served out left and put Halep out of balance. When Halep hurried back, her next two strokes didn't do any damage, but instead gave Zhang an opportunity to hit the winning shot.


In the second round, a relieved Zhang faced Alize Cornet. Check out another match point, this time three simple but effective strokes:

First Zhang returned a weak second serve, neutralizing Cornet. The second stroke was a setup and the third shot was a winner, perfectly landing in the right corner for a 6-3, 6-3 win. Zhang, tears in her eyes again, raised her arms up high in the air as her racket dropped to the court.


In the third round, Zhang met lefty Varvara Lepchenko. She showed her defensive moves -- that she can run to any corner and get the ball back.

After that point, it was a routine 6-1, 6-3 win that took only 64 minutes.


Power hitter Madison Keys was up next in the fourth round. Zhang lost her first set 3-6, but she took the second set 6-3. Here in the third set, an ailing Keys tried to shorten the rally with a big hit and rush to the net.

Zhang patiently stayed the course. One lob and one half-court volley later, Keys was done.


Johanna Konta ended Zhang's run 6-4, 6-1 in the quarters. Konta controlled the tempo from beginning to end. Look at this point in the first set:

Konta's shots were deep and aggressive; Zhang's returns were short and reactive. Later Zhang said she never had advanced that deep into a tournament and that fatigue was a big factor.

The confidence factor

After reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, Zhang went on to the second round at Roland Garros and the third round at the US Open. At the China Open in October, she beat Halep again to reach the quarterfinals. Her rank at the end of 2016 had soared to No. 23.

"She just gains much more confidence," Liu told ESPN.com

Confidence carried her to a new level, and it also brought her joy. After the US Open, she spent several days in New York doing some sightseeing, visiting all the big landmarks and attractions, which she never did in the previous six years. She chose to play in the Hawaii Open in November. Why?

"I'd never been to Hawaii before," she said. She eventually lost to Catherine Bellis in the final.

When she became the first Chinese player to reach the quarterfinals of the China Open since Li Na in 2013, the already bubbling comparisons grew stronger. But Zhang bluntly refused to indulge them.

"Big sister Na is two-time Grand Slam champion," she said. "No one can be like her."

And how's she handling the sudden fame?

"I heard enough bad words before," Zhang said, referencing criticisms from just a year ago. "So I will not care about those good words."

In October, frustrated by some negative comments on her Weibo account, she deleted all her content, saying she does "not want to be with dirty people at the same space."

Zhang opened her 2017 season at the Brisbane International, beating Laura Siegemund before losing to then world No. 5 Dominika Cibulkova in three sets. At the Sydney International, she lost to then No. 46 Eugenie Bouchard in the first round, wrapping up her Australian Open preparation.

"This winter, we concentrated on improving her fitness level, prepared her for longer matches -- she also served better," Liu said. "Although [Zhang] lost to Cibulkova, she served nine aces and I like the way she played that game."

Chinese tennis has a good track record in Melbourne. Zheng Jie and Yan Zi won China's first ever Grand Slam title in 2006 in women's doubles. It's where Li Na won her second Grand Slam in 2014. And, of course, there was Zhang Shuai's Cinderella story last year.

Zhang returns to Melbourne Park as the No. 20 seed, facing a qualifier in the first round. She could meet No. 10-seed Carla Suarez Navarro in the third round.

What is Zhang's goal this time? She's keeping it simple.

"Win my first game," she said.