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Zheng Qinwen sprouts from a family’s big sacrifice—and the little seed Li Na planted in her heart
Through a strong support system and emphasis on character development, the 2022 WTA Newcomer of the Year is well on the way toward achieving her Grand Slam dream.
Published Jan 17, 2023
BARCELONA—On a crisp December morning, meddlesome mist permeates the Els Gorchs Tennis Club on the outskirts of Barcelona. The land is sated after being fueled with showers, but hard tennis courts struggle to digest the overnight soak. Drying equipment is no match for the latest volley of raindrops punched down from the sky.
“I’m really sorry,” says Zheng Qinwen as she arrives with coach Pere Riba. “The weather is no good.” Sharing her sentiment, Riba insists, “The rain has been crazy. But we will make a plan.”
Training in Spain has been part of Zheng’s master blueprint since setting up a base here in 2019. By now she’s an expert adapter, a quality that traces back to her early childhood years. She introduces herself as Qinwen, but also goes by Ana and is fondly referred to by some as “Queenwen”. She has dabbled in multiple sports, including table tennis, before the “classic” presentation of one Roger Federer sold her on a larger playing surface.
When Zheng was eight, her father told her, “If you want to go to Wuhan, we'll try to find a better coach for you.” The Shiyan, China native left home, and slowly but surely accepted that separation from her parents was part of the tradeoff for an advanced tennis education.
Not long into her transition, 5535 miles away, countrywoman Li Na broke new ground by becoming the first Asian-born tennis player to win a Grand Slam singles title at the 2011 French Open. More than 116 million people in China tuned in that day—one was Zheng, now stimulated with a direct line to follow toward her own Grand Slam dream.
“As a child, we don't think that much about these things. Li Na won her first Grand Slam, and I then started thinking that, ‘Oh, the Asian player can also do something good in tennis. This is such an international sport,’” says Zheng. “I think that she put a little seed in my heart that I also want to do it. I want to try to be like her, you know, and even better.”
Her connection to the trailblazer grew when Zheng spent three years in Beijing shaping her game with Carlos Rodriguez, who guided Li to her second major title at the 2014 Australian Open. In an email, Li recalled the first time she saw the budding talent shortly after hanging up her racquet.
“The first time I met Ana was in 2015 when IMG intended to represent her,” wrote Li. “At that time, I thought Ana had excellent physical condition.”
With the courts at Gorchs unplayable, Zheng and Riba head inside for a 45-minute gym session. The foundation Li referenced is in the process of receiving an off-season upgrade, as Riba walks his protégé through a series of weight-training exercises. Their work is serious and calculated: sets build strength and aid injury prevention. Their rapport is laidback and positive: laughs and smiles bring out each other’s personalities.
“She's improving a lot in Spanish. Maybe in a couple of month, she will surprise you,” jests Riba, who drives the 30 minutes himself each morning to Zheng’s apartment before heading to their preferred practice spot. “She is really easygoing, a very nice person. A normal person, taking care of the details, taking care of all the team.”
Zheng prefers nature surrounding the club to nightlife inside the city. When not competing, she welcomes chances to sing, dance, read and brush up on a third language. (“I'm trying a couple of lessons in Spanish because sometimes my team talks and I couldn't understand what they say.”) Fashion and photography have grown into passions, too. As we change out production sets, Zheng happily shows us around the complex and poses for a handful of portraits.
“I love pictures. I like to see how they turn out. They are memories to keep,” she says. “We have a lot of different beauty. We have beauty on the tennis court, we show our power, to be strong, to fight a lot. And also on another side, to be beautiful as a person.”
While Zheng is eager to continue progressing on the court, she chooses not to be consumed by it. Character development is of greater importance. Waking up with purpose, maintaining an open mind and carrying respect will organically harvest growth in her everyday work.
“It's really important to improve as a person. I heard a lot from my coach that if you are a good person, there's more big chances that you can play good tennis,” she explains. “If you have good communication, that also can help you to work better on court. When you're a better person, you always make friends. I think that's helped.”
She’s only scratched the surface on the WTA Tour, yet 2022 was a formidable introduction to this mantra in motion. Zheng won her debut at all four majors, highlighted by a run to the round of 16 at Roland Garros that included a win over 2018 champion Simona Halep, and taking a set off eventual winner Iga Swiatek. A maiden WTA final appearance came at Tokyo in September, and a month later, Zheng broke the Top 25. In all it cemented a a climb of 118 spots from her 2021 year-end ranking, and by December, Zheng was selected as the WTA’s Newcomer of the Year.
“The truth is that from the beginning, I had a lot of confidence [in her],” asserts Riba. “The small details that she was correcting. Every month she improved and she doesn't stop. After one year and three months, I can see these changes. She improved a lot the way how she was watching tennis. She is more clear [with] what she has to do.”
Li Na won her first Grand Slam, and I then started thinking that, ‘Oh, the Asian player can also do something good in tennis. This is such an international sport.’ I think that she put a little seed in my heart that I also want to do it. I want to try to be like her, you know, and even better. Zheng Qinwen
When it’s time for the formal portion of our interview, Zheng sits adjacent to an indoor fire pit. Our hosts offer to light it, but it would be overkill with the “Fire” already across from me. It was a nickname given to Zheng when she first went to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla, Today, she has an intimate understanding of why, identifying a lack of patience as her greatest limitation.
Even so, there’s a fiercer layer to the flame that burns inside: Sheer drive to unleash more out of herself.
“I was happy to be the newcomer because that means I was doing good the first year on the WTA Tour, and then I wish I could have done better,” she says. “I don't want to get relaxed because of this. For me, to talk honestly, this is nothing. Iga Swiatek, she's just one year older than me, but she already leads much more in front.
“I wish in (2023), I can really do something in the big tournaments. I enjoy to play in the big stadiums. That makes me feel the competition.”
Riba keeps dialogue moving forward as one mechanism to manage pressure. Seeing how well Zheng handled new experiences last year provides a source of confidence that further steps forward are coming.
Advises Li: “We can see their achievements from last year’s ranking, they are really improving. There is no doubt that players draw more attention from other players and coaches once they are entering the Top 30. They will have to face more challenges in the new season. I hope Ana and her team will embrace these.”
As questions wrap, Riba shares that a dry court has become available 40 minutes away and encourages us to tag along. He and Zheng walk out with bocadillos in hand while our crew races to get everything packed up. When we reach the un-scouted location after a small hiccup with the GPS, Riba greets us at the parking entrance before linking back up with Zheng. As they did earlier at Gorchs, her parents take in the latest activity from a distance. For the daughter who left home at eight, she’s making up for all the time apart from her original fan club.
“I think I cannot do it without them because they really make some important decisions for me in my tennis career. For example, they make me go out to see the world very early,” the appreciative Zheng says. “They support me, they did a big sacrifice for my tennis, and really, thank you for them. Sometimes you have to be long distance. My father, I didn't see him for more than one year. So I'm really happy that my family can all be here. Because during my grow up time, I don't have too much time that all the family is together.”
The backdrop of the improvised practice location expunges the misty memories of morning. Riba’s assurance that all would come together in the end is vividly portrayed by the early-evening, golden-hour light. She concludes with a serve target drill and upon finding out our desire to capture a bullseye, Riba alerts, “Watch Qinwen now. She’s different when it’s a competition.”
The Spaniard offers her four attempts to hit one specific empty can, a deep T in the ad court. Zheng knocks it over in half the tries allotted. We’ve been served by a queen, or better yet, Queenwen.