In a tournament of many upsets, China’s Zhu Lin has made an impression at this year’s Australian Open.
At almost 29 years old – her birthday is on women’s final day – she conjured up the best form of her career in her 18th Slam main draw.
Zhu has never won a tournament, even at the ITF tour level. Her best results were reaching the second round of the US Open in 2019; of the Australian Open in 2020 and 2021; and of Wimbledon in 2021.
At this year’s Australian Open, ranked 87 in the world, every opponent she beat was higher ranked than her.
In the first round, she breezed past Canada’s Rebecca Marino, ranked 20 places above her, 6-2 6-4.
Zhu showed herself to be strong off both sides, especially hitting flat down the line like a laser, flashing her red-stringed racquet. She is adept at playing the angles too, from the baseline or at the net.
Next, Zhu did even better against 23rd seed Jill Teichmann of Switzerland, defeating her 2 & 2.
Zhu seemed nerveless and broke straight away. Streaking away to 4-0, she soon took the set with an emphatic smash.
She broke early again in the second. On her third match point, she clinched a hard-fought final game.
Without serving a single ace, she won 78% of points on her first serve.
Then she surprised 6th seed Maria Sakkari in the third round 7-6(3) 1-6 6-4. Zhu was not offput by the massive Greek contingent supporting her opponent.
She took the first set in a tiebreak which included a perfect lob.
Sakkari fought back hard in the second, confining Zhu to the one game.
The third set was tight and it took Zhu three break points, the last captured by a brilliant defensive lob into the corner followed by her forehand down the line, to pull ahead 5-4.
Despite being a modest server, she went for an ace down the middle with her first match point and got it.
Zhu had never before beaten a Top 10 player.
She cried during her post match interview, asking “Honestly, am I in a dream?” before adding, “I have to believe in myself…to just work hard every day. Who knows what’s going to happen, you never know.”
She then asked to address the crowd in Chinese since it was Chinese New Year’s Eve.
By defeating Sakkari, Zhu joined countrywoman Zhang Shuai, the number 23 seed, in the fourth round.
Zhu faced Victoria Azarenka at Rod Laver Arena. Azarenka was seeded 24 this year and knows this court well after many matches on it, including two winning finals.
But Zhu was not overawed by playing at Rod Laver Arena for the first time. Her schedule meant that she had worked her way from the far-flung Court 14 to show court Court 3, progressing to Margaret Court Arena before taking to the largest court at Melbourne Park.
The match started at 11.37pm, following the Tsitsipas v Sinner five-setter.
Zhu broke Azarenka and then held serve for 2-0 before Azarenka clawed back to 3-3. Zhu surged again to take the set 6-4.
The start of the second set was reversed with Azarenka taking the 2-0 lead. She had improved her first serve and won many more points at the net, whereas Zhu started making errors and her slow second serve was even slower and more vulnerable.
At 5-0 the match paused as Azarenka went down 0-40 and bird droppings needed to be cleaned off the court, taking several minutes. After the interruption, Azarenka came back to win that game. She took the set 6-1.
There were breaks both ways early in the third set for 2-2. Azarenka hit a great cross court backhand to get 3-2 but then took a bathroom break, unusual mid-set. When she returned, she committed an unforced error and a double fault.
Zhu took advantage of her opponent’s lapse and won the next point with a sliced backhand approach to the corner worthy of Ash Barty. She followed up with a cross court backhand winner to break back.
The next game she won with a rare ace. But Azarenka held to love for 4-4, though even the love games in this match were mostly a tussle.
Azarenka got two break points when Zhu’s backhand deserted her and used one to go up 5-4.
In the last shot of an 18 exchange rally, Zhu’s forehand was going out into the side lines but clipped the net and landed in. She went up 40-15 but Azarenka fought back to get match point.
She won with a great cross court pass that looped across a lunging Zhu at the net. The match finished after two hours and 40 minutes at 2.17am.
Azarenka was now in her sixth Australian Open quarter final.
Immediately after her battle with Zhu, a still dazed Azarenka revealed in her on court interview, “with this tennis she has to be top 20,” adding, “I just have never heard of her before…”
At her press conference she elaborated, “Today I felt like the bullets were coming from every angle: on the run, off the run, on the line, touching the net….At one point I had to tell myself to stop thinking what she’s was doing and really focus on myself.
“I can’t control her making winners, I can’t control her hitting lines or playing amazing tennis.”
How Zhu Lin builds on the progress made at the Australian Open remains to be seen, but she’s certainly shown how good her best can be.
Title photo of Zhu Lin by Rob Prange