NEW YORK (Reuters) - With Li Na on the sidelines, Peng Shuai picked up the Chinese torch and set the U.S. Open ablaze on Wednesday, scorching fourth-seeded Agnieszka Radwanska of Poland to storm into the third round at Flushing Meadows.
Long before Li, the current world number three, left her mark on women’s tennis by becoming China’s first grand slam champion, Peng was blazing new trails as the first woman from her country to reach the semi-finals of a Tier One event in 2005.
The 28-year-old doubles specialist has continued her pioneering ways and in February reached a new summit by climbing to the top of the doubles rankings, making her the first Chinese tennis player (male or female, in singles or doubles) to reach number one.
“When she (Li) say she’s not going to play Montreal, Cincinnati and also U.S. Open, it was like big news,” said a grinning Peng, after claiming the biggest scalp of the U.S. Open so far with a 6-3 6-4 win.
“And then everybody was start talking. But this year I think also is one of maybe the best to have like six Chinese on the girl main draw. Not bad because they are young.
“I prefer to have Li Na (here). They didn’t watch me too much because there is more pressure. Not easy to handle that. I still want to work hard and just focus and enjoy my tennis.”
Peng conceded she has not always enjoyed her work and twice nearly quit the sport, but her perseverance was eventually rewarded with a pair of grand slam doubles titles from Wimbledon and the French Open.
There are, however, still holes in Peng’s resume that she would like to fill, most importantly a first WTA Tour singles title.
She has been on the verge of a long-awaited breakthrough with six runner-up finishes, including in Shenzhen earlier this year when she lost to Li.
Even now in the twilight of a ground-breaking career, Peng says she continues to learn new things and fine tune her game.
The Chinese, who entered the contest 3-22 lifetime against top-five opponents, was masterful in turning key points and won three of five break points against Radwanska, who had been in superb hard court form after winning in Montreal in her U.S. Open buildup.
“Actually my tennis career is a little bit up and down,” said Peng, the third-ranked Chinese woman behind Li and Zhang Shuai. “I have two times almost stop playing, so it’s really lucky I’m still here.
“With (every) top player I play, I learn. Their tennis maybe is different. Some like to really power and like today, Radwanska, she’s really smart, you know, play the angles all different.
“I want to learn like how I can be there. On the Tour everybody like try like their best. I think that also in the match (today) when the chance comes, how to make it, to take it.”
(This story has been refiled to correct spelling of Zhang in 12th para)
Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes