World number 133 Zhang Shuai played the match of her life to stun second seed Simona Halep, 6-4, 6-3, in 78 minutes and secure her first victory at a major in 15 attempts, in what is undoubtedly one of the biggest takeaways from the 2016 season.
Zhang Zoned in from the Outset
Under the lights of the newly renovated Margaret Court Arena, it was Zhang who exploded out of the gates the quicker of the two, showcasing some sensational hitting to completely outplay Halep and jumping out to a commanding 4-0 lead in the process.
The Romanian, however, knew she had to change something if she were to have any hopes of turning the match around and soon began to play with more conviction, promptly breaking back in the following game before eventually recovering the early break in the ninth game, when Zhang was serving for the set.
But that certainly didn’t stop the world number 133 from going for it when she got the chance; the Chinese qualifier putting together one more sensational return game as she broke for a third and final time to draw first blood, 6-4, in 46 minutes.
Zhang Reels Off Five Games in a Row to Secure Career-Defining Victory
The second set started in stark contrast to the majority of the first, as it was Halep who was beginning to open up the court and deliver the final blow in exchanges from the back of the court, while Zhang began to come off the boil slightly in the third game. As a result, after trading holds of serve to open the set with relative ease, the world number two began to stamp her authority all over this first-round clash, breaking before further consolidating to take a 3-1 lead.
But that would be the last of Halep’s celebrations on this night as Zhang soon weathered the storm and remained aggressive to draw level at 3-all with another sumptuous backhand winner, en route to reeling off the last five games of the match to reach the second round.
The Magnitude of Zhang’s Victory
As she drove one last unreturnable forehand into the corner on match point, Zhang had done the unexpected. In 14 previous Grand Slam appearances, she failed to jump over the first hurdle—until this year where a career-defining victory over Halep sparked a magical run into the second week.
Before this year’s Australian Open, Zhang later admitted to considering retiring at the age of 26 at the end of last season, but her emotional victory over Halep was sure to dismiss any more considerations of retirement for the time being.
In many ways, this victory was the foundation for Zhang’s career-best season, one that saw her win 48 of 71 matches (67.61%) and reach a career-high ranking of number 23 in the world, which will undoubtedly help her cause when she returns to Melbourne next January as a seeded player for the first time.