Star finally has her day on court
Zhu Lin serves notice of intent with key victory after frustrating early career
Symbolized by the jumbo trophy for her maiden WTA singles win, China's rising tennis ace Zhu Lin is enjoying a fruitful early season surge that has rejuvenated a bumpy career.
Once an obscure presence among China's competitive female pros, Zhu has stood out this year as arguably the biggest surprise on the women's circuit with a series of impressive performances that peaked on Sunday when she claimed her first singles title on the WTA Tour in Thailand.
With a solid 6-4, 6-4 defeat of Lesia Tsurenko in one hour and 45 minutes in the final, Zhu lifted the winner's trophy — a 14-kilogram gilded dolphin — to mark her biggest career breakthrough of winning a tour-level singles title and maintain the tremendous start of her 2023 season following a deep run at the Australian Open last month.
"I knew to win the first one is always not easy, so I am extremely emotional to be able to eventually make it," said Zhu, who couldn't hold back tears while addressing the crowd and paying tribute to her team at the trophy ceremony.
"My opponent plays a very complete game so I need to be patient. I learned my lessons from our last match that I need to attack more aggressively to earn my chances against her. I am so glad that I did it," said Zhu, who has climbed to her career high ranking of No 41 thanks to the win.
Now with her pre-season goal of either cracking the top 50 or winning a WTA title already achieved only one month into the new campaign, Zhu is taking aim at higher targets in the remainder of what looks like a breakout year for the 29-year-old hard worker.
"Now it's only February and I already did it, so maybe I have to talk with my team to adjust my goals for the rest of the season. I'm quite proud of myself and looking forward to it," said Zhu, who is expected to take a two-week break before lacing up again for a WTA 250 tournament in Mexico.
A young prospect touted as the next big thing for Chinese tennis years ago, Zhu spent several tough years toiling away at lower-level events without posting consistent results to reach the higher ranks.
Zhu, who was featured at the Rising Stars Invitational at the WTA Finals in Singapore in 2015, had questioned whether tennis was the right path for her after seeing her efforts of breaking into the top echelon fall short for years in a row, while her teenage rivals, such as Naomi Osaka, Ons Jabeur and Caroline Garcia, were all shining on the Grand Slam stage.
"There was a lot up and downs. Even sometimes I think about maybe I'm not good enough for tennis. I thought about retiring sometimes," said Zhu, who called herself "Miss_tough" on her account on Chinese social media site Weibo.
"But my family, my friends, they always talked to me. They believed I can be a better player, so they pushed me every day to become a better person. I really appreciate it."
The hard work eventually paid off.
Riding on the momentum from her quarterfinal appearance at a warm-up event in Auckland, Zhu served notice of improvement at the season's first major by reaching the fourth-round at the Australian Open last month to mark her best result at a Slam.
Her convincing three-set win over world No 7 Maria Sakkari of Greece in the third round and hard-fought loss to two-time champion Victoria Azarenka in Melbourne had suggested Zhu's rise was more than just a flash in the pan.
"She never gave up, no matter what the score was," former world No 1 Azarenka said of Zhu after spending nearly three hours battling to stop her in three sets in the round of 16 in Melbourne.
"With this tennis, she has to be top 20, because she played amazing. I'd never heard of her before, I know she's coming from China — but there are so many players who can come out here and produce an amazing level."
Now with her confidence boosted and her game leveled up following the season-opening upswing, Zhu is quite positive that her reputation for losing long three-setters has been changed for good.
"This obviously gave me a lot of confidence, made me believe in myself that I can play better tennis. I need to get more chances to play against higher-ranked players to be able to beat them more often," said Zhu, who was nicknamed "The Playwright" by fans for her unpredictable and dramatic losses in previous seasons.
"Hopefully, all my play will be comedy in the future," she said after her third-round win against Sakkari at the Aussie Open.