Qinwen Zheng received the Newcomer of the Year WTA award at the end of the 2022 season, finishing it at World No. 25 in the rankings. There’s no denying she made significant progress this year as well, but isn’t calling her the Most Improved Player of the Year underplaying how good she already was at the beginning of 2023? Still, the highlights were there with two WTA titles, a Slam quarterfinal, and a final at the WTA Elite Trophy.

Mediocre first six months, looking for that tournament that will change it all

Zheng had long felt like a player whose breakthrough run must be right around the corner, but it took her a while to actually get there. The first half of her 2023 campaign was the same story, with big expectations in many high-caliber events (especially the Australian Open). Lacking consistency was a major issue, though, and despite being a popular dark horse contender in Melbourne, the 21-year-old fell in straight sets to Bernarda Pera in Round 1.

The Chinese produced a quarterfinal run at the WTA 1000 in Rome, but it was a rather comfortable draw and didn’t feel like it came as a result of her ironing out the weaknesses. After another early exit at a Slam and a winless grass campaign where she ran into some very tough draws and also wasn’t fully comfortable with the surface, you could call it an uninspiring six months. But little did we know that the breakthrough was still really close and Zheng would go on a rampage from Palermo onwards.

First titles, Asian Games, Slam quarterfinal, almost top 10

If we include her gold medal at the Asian Games, the 21-year-old is 25-6 since the middle of July. Post-Wimbledon, she returned to clay in Palermo, picking up her maiden WTA Tour title. After a decent North American hard-court lead-up, everyone was once again looking at her as a dark horse contender in New York. While a player like Aryna Sabalenka is a bit of a nightmare matchup for Zheng with how she takes away her ability to play first-strike tennis, a quarterfinal exit was still a big step forward, with the Chinese previously struggling to pull off a few wins in a row at the Majors.

The Asian Games was not the most stacked event, but the final there still had her battling a fellow top 50 player in Lin Zhu and the confidence gathered fired up Zheng for the rest of the year. She added to her trophy cabinet in Zhengzhou, winning a WTA 500 for the very first time and beating players like Barbora Krejcikova and Maria Sakkari along the way. At one of the year-end championships, the WTA Elite Trophy, she even got a win away from breaking the top 10, losing in the final to Beatriz Haddad Maia.

Looking ahead

All in all, the latter half of the season makes this campaign a huge step forward for Qinwen Zheng. Considered one of the most talented prospects of her generation, she was lurking and waiting for a perfect moment to strike. It did take long enough to become a little frustrating, but it doesn’t take anything away from her potential. Such a dynamic aggressive ball-striker is bound to have some fun on the tour and after all the success in the last few months of 2023, it’s impossible to look at next year with anything but optimism.

Main Photo Credit: Geoff Burke – USA TODAY Sports

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