By Theresa Lin
On Saturday Zheng Qinwen became only the second Chinese tennis player in history to contend for a Grand Slam singles final a decade after Li Na lifted the Australian Open trophy in Melbourne. She was overwhelmed by a dominant Aryna Sabalenka, but in talking to her a little more than a year ago, it’s hard for me not to think that Zheng’s arrival was preordained, maybe even destined. But she wouldn’t put it that way.
Speaking with her in late 2022 for the cover story of Racquet Issue No. 21, I was struck by the 20-year-old’s poise as she articulated her ambitions—to become a top player with lasting power—at once plainly yet authoritatively. Of course, she shared the same desires held by most players on tour, but Zheng was not merely reciting a conventional fantasy. She was speaking her aspirations into existence. She imagined herself then as she does now—as a vehicle for these greater callings, and as such, her work is charged with underlying conviction.
“When everything is working well, I believe in the destiny,” Zheng said in a press conference in Melbourne. “But if the destiny doesn’t go on my side, I don’t believe that at all. Only depends where destiny goes.”
Listening to Zheng’s matter-of-fact treatment of her life, one begins to underplay, as she does, the incredible sacrifice she and her entire family made for the highly unlikely odds that she would break through in the tennis world. Aspects of her childhood, no matter their severity, come to feel self-determined and ordinary because of their familiarity to Zheng. In the past couple of years alone, she has recounted these same biographical details countless times for fresh audiences, even when she herself has become inured to them. Perhaps that period of her life feels particularly distant given her present success, which recasts her father’s discipline in terms of clairvoyance and an assuredness one can only assign retrospectively.
Still, the significance of Zheng’s achievement cannot be overstated. Her quick ascent—from World No. 108 when she debuted on this Australian Slam stage three years ago, to current World No. 7 entering the finals—has drawn Chinese fans the world over. They wave banners reading “Zheng Queen Wen” alongside the Chinese flag and cry in unison: jiayou, or “add oil”, colloquially “let’s go.” She charmingly embraces them in return. Last year, Zheng spontaneously serenaded the Zhengzhou Open crowd during the trophy ceremony, in part out of overwhelming elation for having secured her first WTA 500 championship title, in part to commune with the compatriots whose support carried her through the tournament. In recent Melbourne post-match interviews, she beams at fans in the high tiers dressed in her country’s red, tells them they look beautiful in Mandarin and wishes them “Happy New Year” ahead of the February festivities.
She is a star.
Above and top: Zheng Qinwen captured in San Diego in late 2022 by the legendary hip-hop photographer Sue Kwon for Racquet.
It was not so long ago, at just 11 years old, Zheng huddled before a television alongside fellow academy girls as they gleefully watched Li, a player who emerged from Zheng’s own home province of Hubei, battle for her second Major victory at the 2014 Australian Open. Li’s win made an indelible impression on Zheng who, until that point, had only known the sport to be dominated by Western players. Li broadened the scope of Zheng’s ambitions beyond China, demonstrating that Asian players not only deserved to compete on a global scale but could win the biggest titles in the world.
Prior to Li, “China had already won the Athens Olympic Games women’s gold medal in doubles in 2004,” says Des Tyson, Australian former professional tennis player and National Coach of the Chinese Tennis Association from 2003 to 2010. At that time, Chinese athletes were beginning to have a presence on the international tour. “China really only started to send players abroad to compete internationally around 2002–2003, once the Olympic Games were awarded to Beijing.” What Li did was elevate Chinese sports to a different level.
“China as a whole was modernizing and developing in all aspects of life at a rapid rate during this time. In the public’s mind, I’m sure they were eager to make similar rapid advances in the development of their tennis players,” says Tyson. The current seven top 100 Chinese women’s players were undoubtedly influenced by Li’s triumph in the sport and represent the fruition of a tennis boom ignited years ago. In Zheng, China has “another rising star to get behind and support,” says Tyson. Now, a new generation of players is watching Zheng on the television, imagining what is possible for themselves.
Perhaps for casual viewers, Zheng’s appearance at this Australian Open final feels like a fluke. She has, admittedly, experienced an auspicious path after the departures of third seed Jessica Pegula and first seed Iga Swiatek in her half of the draw. But for those who have more closely observed her rise these past few years, Zheng possesses the composure and power to go the distance—at this Open, alone, Zheng has led the women’s side in the most aces and averaged a faster forehand and backhand than even her finals opponent, World No. 2 powerhouse Sabalenka. In this way, her appearance in the final comes less as a shock and feels more like a long-awaited arrival, perhaps to no one more than Zheng, herself.
At eight years old, Zheng set off for a tennis academy in Wuhan 250 miles from home. The day she left, her mother cried—separating from her only child seemed unbearable. But Zheng insisted that she wanted to go.
Zheng believed training would only last a few short days, but it wasn’t until after her first practice that she learned she wouldn’t be returning home. The news came as a complete surprise. “It was my parents’ decision and I had to accept it,” says Zheng, who was, by then, already well accustomed to discipline. Her father, a track-and-field athlete in his earlier days, had been demanding throughout her childhood, she says. He started her playing tennis at three years old for physical activity —“I was a fat kid,” she said. She often hit with her father or other players at the courts near her home for hours, and after she lost a match, he regularly made her run to reflect on her performance.
“When I was young, I didn’t feel that tennis was fun. I always felt that I had to win or do well, otherwise my parents would punish me,” she recalls. “The earlier years were challenging.”
By six years old, her parents encouraged her to pursue one of her sports more seriously. They wanted to see how far she could take her intuitive gifts. Early on, she demonstrated natural ability and athleticism, not only in tennis, but in basketball, badminton, and ping-pong as well. But she ultimately embraced tennis for how the sport valued the player’s ability to determine the outcome of each point: “You win for you and you lose for you. You take all responsibility.”
Within the realm of tennis, Zheng could exercise the willpower and control that she perhaps lacked off the court. While she trained at the academy she would see her parents at most once a week, and each parting newly saddened Zheng, especially when she was younger and first acclimating to the separation and the unfamiliar, intensive context of the academy. Still, Zheng, as much as her parents, was determined to see how far she could take her potential. She accepted, or she had to accept, that mastering the sport would require even more discipline and independence than what had been previously demanded of her. She would commit everything to tennis. She would think of family when they were together, but otherwise, she would not allow any room for longing. She would focus strictly on cultivating her game.
For the next few years, Zheng trained outside year-round in Wuhan, where winters hovered around freezing and summers exceeded 100 degrees. After practice, she regularly journaled about her performance, reflecting on what she did well and where she could improve. But beyond an empirical record of her days, Zheng’s entries reinforced the idea that excellence, even if she hadn’t yet achieved it, was possible. Its potential already existed within her and only needed to be channeled.
Zheng continues to journal after practices and matches, though sometimes, after a particularly difficult loss, she’ll step away from the game for a couple of days until the initial sting has faded. “Losing is the hardest feeling. Especially that same night, the movies in your head don’t stop. If I did this point well, maybe I could have won the match. But everything already happened, you can’t change anything.” Still, all of her efforts become worth it when she wins. “You focus hard, you get into a state of deep flow. Nothing compares to the feeling.” For Zheng, tennis at its best unlocks the profound human ability to transcend.
At the start of 2023 season, still only flirting with breaking into the Top 20, Zheng already set her sights on penetrating the Top 10 in a year’s time. “I know I have the ability,” Zheng said with quiet, searing resolve. Unsurprisingly, members of her management team at IMG have been calling her “Fire” ever since they signed her at 11 years old when they watched her play at the Discovery Open at the Nick Bollettieri Academy—the same academy that had once enrolled nine-year-old Maria Sharapova, frequently trained the Williams sisters, and catalyzed Andre Agassi’s career. Regardless of the outcomes of this Australian Open final, Zheng’s “fire” mindset has achieved just that.
Today, Zheng is both a player for China and a player for anyone who believes in the limitlessness of human determinism. Perhaps this is what seeing Li that winter day in Wuhan unlocked for Zheng—the duality that she could play for both her country and the world. Zheng exists in the realm of dreams, where there is no past or future, only the present in which she actively pursues what was once only a private corner of her imagination.
Theresa Lin received her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where she was awarded the De Alba Fellowship by Writing Program faculty for an excerpt of her novel manuscript. She is represented by Janklow and Nesbit and teaches at The Cooper Union and 92NY. She has previously lectured at Fordham, Rutgers, and Columbia and her writing has been featured in The LA Review of Books, Off Assignment, Oh Reader, Storm Cellar, Truthout, Smart Set, and Random Sample Review, among others.