Struggling to stay upright as suffocating heat and humidity drained her energy in the U.S. Open semifinals, Peng Shuai refused to give up.
She paused between points to clutch at her left thigh and put her weight on her racket as if it were a cane. She leaned against a wall and wiped away tears.
Helped off the court and diagnosed with heat stroke, doctors told her to quit. But Peng still came back for more. Six more points until she eventually collapsed to the ground and Caroline Wozniacki, her opponent in that 2014 match, came around the net to check on her.
Only then, with her body pushed to the absolute limit — maybe even beyond the limit — did Peng retire from the match that marked the pinnacle of her singles career.
Ultimately, she was taken away in a wheelchair.
For a player who overcame heart surgery at the age of 12, quitting doesn’t come lightly to the trailblazing tennis standout, who has disappeared after accusing a former top Chinese official of sexually assaulting her.
Her hard-earned grit carried her to 23 tour-level doubles titles, including at Wimbledon in 2013 and the French Open in 2014.
“Very determined,” was the way German player Laura Siegemund, one of Peng’s former doubles partners, described her in a phone interview with The Associated Press. “She has also a great sense for the game. Off court she’s just a sweet person — more introverted, more quiet — but a super nice and humble person. … I can’t believe that this is happening in the 21st century. But I think the more people come together and speak up, that’s really important. I hope she is fine.”
China’s Foreign Ministry on Friday stuck to its line that it wasn’t aware of the controversy surrounding Peng, while White House press secretary Jen Psaki said that Chinese authorities should “provide independent and verifiable proof of her whereabouts and that she is safe.”
A social media campaign with the hashtag #WhereIsPengShuai has been trending on Twitter as players like Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams have spoken out.
“I’m very worried to hear this news. You don’t know what is true, what is not true,” Siegemund said. “In the end, all this needs to be investigated further. But in the very first place, it just needs to be made sure that she’s OK. It’s just concerning that she kind of really disappeared. That’s very disturbing to me.”
Siegemund also noted that China usually hosts several WTA tournaments each year.
“Let’s hope for the best. It’s good that a lot of people are talking about this. It’s a very dangerous situation for everybody — even speaking up,” Siegemund said.
Introduced to tennis at the age of 8 by an uncle, the 35-year-old Peng is an admirer of John McEnroe and has a lucky cow on her tennis bag to honor her birth in a year of the ox.
When she reached the No. 1 ranking in doubles in February 2014, Peng became the first Chinese player — male or female — to reach the top spot in either singles or doubles.
Peng has an unusual playing style featuring two-handed grips on both forehands and backhands.
“Very unique, very different style. But she had a great career and she had amazing results in her career,” Siegemund said. “She has a really good eye, really good strokes — a different, but great, player.”
Besides her two Grand Slam titles in doubles — both achieved with Taiwanese partner Hsieh Su-wei — Peng also reached the Australian Open final in 2017 with Andrea Hlavackova.
Peng won her only tournament with Siegemund in Guangzhou, China, in September 2019.
“We had an intense week there,” Siegemund said. “We had the fans behind us and it was really nice to play with a Chinese player in China.”
Siegemund said that while there was a bit of a language barrier between them, Peng “was always in a good mood. She was always up to hit.
“I always wanted to play more with her. But it didn’t happen for several reasons,” added Siegemund, who is currently recovering from right knee surgery.
In singles, besides her U.S. Open semifinal appearance, Peng also won two titles — at Tianjin in 2016 and Nanchang in 2017 — and finished runner-up in seven tournaments.
Attempting to follow in the footsteps of Li Na, a fellow Chinese player and the first Grand Slam singles champion from Asia, Peng also reached the fourth round at Wimbledon three times in singles, the fourth round at the Australian Open twice and the third round at the French Open twice.
Her top ranking in singles was No. 14 in August 2011.
Peng played for China when her country hosted the 2008 Beijing Olympics, as well as at the 2012 London Games and the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
She also won three medals when China hosted the Asian Games in Guangzhou in 2010 — gold in singles and the team event and bronze in doubles.
While not officially retired, she played her last match in Qatar in February 2020.
“She’s definitely at the back end of her career,” Siegemund said. “When we played in 2019 she was going more into doubles and wasn’t really communicating clearly what her priorities are, because I think she didn’t know herself.”
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