The name Peng Shuai is not a household name in the USA, but she is the third-ranked Chinese professional female tennis player behind the more familiar Li Na and Zhang Shuai. More familiar to tennis addicts, that is.
This afternoon in New York City at the US Open, Peng played her 37th. match in Grand Slam events since turning pro in 2001 at the age of fifteen – and reached her first semi-final ever. Think about that. Thirty-six entries and thirty-six times falling short of a goal over thirteen years. Finally, on try number thirty-seven, she makes it to the semi-finals of one of the most prestigious tournaments on the Women’s Tennis Association tour.
Her interview following the match with Tennis Channel commentator Tom Rinaldi was not nearly so entertaining as the ones with the number one Chinese player Li Na, but then she hasn’t had the same practice. The most she could do was smile and wipe her face with a towel while she tried not to cry. “Very excited,” she managed to say in English, when asked to describe her emotions.
Very excited, indeed. Peng is the daughter of a policeman and homemaker and the niece of an uncle who encouraged her to start playing tennis at the age of eight and she has played off and on for twenty years since. When she was thirteen years old, she had heart surgery, and she has struggled with several health issues throughout her tennis career.
“I love tennis, I love to play tennis,” she said in her post-game interview.
I was happy for her because I love a good story about individuals who overcome adversity and realize their dreams after years of hard work. Years of hitting a little yellow ball across a net. Hours, days, weeks, months, years…and in those years believing within herself that she could win the big matches that place her name among the elite in her sport. She has spunk. I love spunk.
In February of 2014, Peng Shuai reached a career high-ranking of number one in the world in doubles. She is the first Chinese professional tennis player, male or female, to reach that standing. Beyond impressive. Rankings are rankings in every sport and are often overrated, but Peng has had a tortuous climb from number 357 in the world in 2002 to number 39 in singles in 2014.
She will face the winner of the Caroline Wozniacki/ Sara Errani match which will be played tonight under the lights in the Arthur Ashe arena. They each have their own stories and are, I’m sure, equally excited and deserving of the opportunity to meet Peng in the semi-finals. Exciting matches in store for the readers of Sports Illustrated. I can’t wait…
Peng Shuai may not make it to the finals of the Us Open this year, but I’d bet good money she’ll keep trying until she does.