By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Ten years after a stunning run to the fourth round of the Australian Open on her main draw debut, Taiwan’s Hsieh Su-wei has enjoyed double good fortune at Melbourne Park this week.
The willow-thin 32-year-old from the steamy southern city of Kaohsiung will line up in the last 16 again after a second fairytale week at the year’s first grand slam.
A marquee center court clash against the 2016 champion Angelique Kerber lies ahead, a formidable challenge for the world number 88.
Yet with the reigning Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza and former world number two Agnieszka Radwanska among the victims in her wake, doubles specialist Hsieh will head into a heaving Rod Laver Arena largely free of pressure.
“Don’t talk about me beating her, it’s more likely I’ll get beaten to death!” Taiwan’s number one joked in an interview with Reuters at Melbourne Park on Sunday.
“I think I’ve just got to try to be positive, take each game as it comes and fight it out to the end.”
While tearing through the singles draw, Hsieh has had to juggle doubles commitments with China’s Peng Shuai, a successful cross-strait partnership that has already yielded Wimbledon and French Open titles.
The pair have made the quarter-finals at Melbourne Park, an added sweetener for Hsieh, one of the rare tour competitors who plays double-handed on both sides.
Her unorthodox style and wealth of doubles experience has seemed to pay off in her singles game this week, conjuring improbable angles that have often tied her opponents in knots.
Her array of drop shots and slices can drive “people kind of crazy”, former world number one Maria Sharapova once remarked after beating her at Wimbledon in 2012.
It’s all based on feel rather than premeditation, said Hsieh, whose father had her play two-handed when she was starting out as a child.
It stuck through her junior days and remains her signature.
“When I was little I was very skinny, like this,” she said, holding up her index finger.
“I was five when I started to play and I didn’t have much power … I couldn’t grasp a racket with one hand properly so I went with two.”
ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Hsieh was 22 when she made the fourth round of the 2008 Australian Open as a qualifier, eventually stopped by seven-times grand slam champion Justine Henin.
A decade on, she will be the oldest player competing in the last 16, a fact she acknowledged somewhat reluctantly.
“I look cute and young! I don’t think too much about the age thing,” she said.
“I was told I have the body of a 20-year-old because I haven’t played all that much … I’ve been quite fortunate without serious injuries as well.
“So I still think there is room for improvement.”
A sharp increase in her ranking should help that late-blooming push, by putting her into more competitive tournaments.
Taiwan lacks a world class tennis program and facilities, said Hsieh, and she can hone her game with few elite compatriots.
Kerber, with her former world number one ranking and two grand slam titles, is quite a step up from Taiwan’s number two, the 259th-ranked Chang Kai-chen.
Not that Hsieh will be guilty of over-analysing the German.
“She’s a great player, it’s fair to say she probably has the advantage with skill and power,” said Hsieh.
“My advantage is that I am free-style.
“I don’t really tend to go in with a game-plan, I kind of just do what comes naturally.”
(Editing by Toby Davis)