Coach Liu never lost faith in Zhang's fighting spirit

Tue Jan 26, 2016 5:05am EST
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By Ian Ransom

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Zhang Shuai's transformation from an emotional wreck to a grand slam quarter-finalist has been the feel-good story of the Australian Open but also counts as a triumph of player management by her faithful coach Liu Shuo.

Finding the right words to comfort a player after a loss is one of the tougher parts of a coach's job, so 37-year-old Liu had to get creative last year as Zhang suffered a crisis of confidence that pushed her to the brink of quitting.

Zhang slumped to her 14th successive first-round exit at the grand slams at the French Open last year, a record among active players in the women's top 300, and her ranking, which peaked at 30 in mid-2014, plummeted towards the 200s.

As loss piled on loss, Liu used boxing metaphors, the wisdom of Michael Jordan and the lessons from his own low points as a Tour battler who never broke the top 1,000 to garnish his motivational speeches.

Zhang wondered if her coach was "cheating" her into persevering but Liu never had any doubt she would turn it round.

"I told Shuai that she was totally different from other Chinese girls," Liu told Reuters at Melbourne Park on Tuesday.

"I said 'one day you will have huge success at the grand slams'. I just felt that for some people who have easy wins in the first or second round, they might not go much farther.

"But if you are always having to battle through the tough times and you never give up, you'll be a big, big success.   Continued...

China's Zhang Shuai talks with her coach Liu Shuo during a practice session at the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne Park, Australia, January 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brandon Malone