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Ten years after countrywoman Li Na’s Australian Open triumph, Qinwen Zheng has outlasted Russian sensation Anna Kalinskaya 6-7(4), 6-3, 6-1 to make her maiden grand slam semi-final.


Back on Rod Laver Arena two nights after her 59-minute thrashing of Frenchwoman Oceane Dodin, Zheng, ranked 60 places higher than her Russian counterpart and coached by Coco Gauff’s former coach, Pere Riba, played a nervous first set with her ever-steady backhand the only component of her game truly in keeping with what we’d seen from Zheng to this point.


Serving at only 45% on first serves, Zheng battled to hold serve in the first set often starting points on the back foot. 


Meanwhile, Kalinskaya, whose service percentage was nearly double that of Zheng, was unable to capitalise on any advantage Zheng’s poor service offered with troubles of her own as Zheng also tried to play the aggressor.


In the tie-break, it was Zheng, a quarter-finalist at the 2023 US Open, who generally had the better of the play however a loose forehand at 4-5 opened the door for the Russian who took the set with a backhand down-the-line winner the following point.


“I think at the beginning of the first set I'm just thinking too much”, Zheng confessed post-match.  “That's why I lost the first set, because I got those early breaks. Then later on I'm not able to keep my serve.”


“Of course, that's one of my problems. So when I lost the first set directly, I tried to tell myself, Stay focused. Don't think too much.”


One set from victory, Kalinskaya was staring down the barrel of a semi-final date with Ukrainian Dayana Yastremska; a match that would’ve yielded plenty of awkward moments given the former's active protest against Russian and Belarusian players.   


Zheng, however, had other ideas.


After each player held serve for the first six games of the second set without facing a break point, Zheng took matters into her own hands as her game started to click.


Suddenly, Zheng’s serve started finding her spots and her trademark top spin forehand found its bite and rip inducing errors from the Kalinskaya at the back of the court.  Kalinskaya, on the other hand, looked rushed when picking up Zheng’s returns and struggled to find a way to dictate the points.


Zheng ultimately broke in the seventh game and raced away with the second set.


As the third set commenced, more storylines opened.  Would Zheng falter again? Could Kalinskaya rally?


The narrative quickly became apparent. 


Although Kalinskaya held to open the set in a thrilling first game, she would not add to her score thereafter with Zheng’s groundstrokes becoming the biggest factor on the court as she brutalised Kalinskaya from the baseline.


While hope briefly remained, it was all but flushed away when Kalinskaya took a medical time out for a hip flexor complaint at 1-4 which she later described as “sore and overloaded”.


Practicing her serving to keep warm while her opponent received treatment, Zheng never cooled down as she became the first Chinese woman since her idol, Li Na, to make the semi-final at the Australian Open. 


Zheng will now face the prodigiously talented Ukrainian qualifier Dayana Yastremska who won earlier in the day against Linda Noskova. 


While the pair have never met on tour, Zheng will likely enter the match as favourite given her more lofty status as the pair battle for an entirely unexpected place in the Australian Open final.


Should Zheng progress to the final, she will do so having not faced a top-50 player. 


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