But if you watch the teenage Zheng hit a forehand, a serve or just about any shot on a tennis court, her first English-language nickname seems more appropriate.
“At the real beginning at IMG, they called me Fire,” she said at the French Open on Friday, referring to her management company, IMG.
There is indeed plenty of power and passion in Zheng’s game, as she demonstrated in her second-round upset of Simona Halep. Ranked No. 74 and climbing, Zheng, a 19-year-old French Open rookie with a lively personality, is one of the most promising young players in the world. She progressed to last 16 on Saturday as Alize Cornet of France retired while trailing 6-0, 3-0.
But Zheng’s run comes at a particularly uncertain time for an emerging Chinese tennis star. She is one of the leaders of the so-called Li Na generation: the group of young Chinese players who gravitated to the game after the success of Li, China’s first Grand Slam singles champion and long one of the highest-earning female athletes. “Li Na makes me think big,” said Zheng, just 8 years old when Li won the French Open in 2011.
Li, who retired in September 2014 at age 32, was one of the catalysts for the WTA Tour’s decision to increase its presence in China, packing its lateseason calendar with tournaments in the country including the WTA Finals, the tour’s year-end championships, which moved to Shenzhen, China, in 2019 for 10 years and offered a record $14 million in prize money, including a winner’s check of more than $4 million.
But despite the long-term deal, there has yet to be another WTA Finals in China and no tour event of any kind since global sporting events were disrupted in early 2020 near the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Although the tour resumed in other parts of the world later that year, China kept its borders shut to most international visitors and international sports events.
In December, the WTA Tour suspended all tournaments in China because of allegations made by Peng Shuaia prominent Chinese player. In an online post, Peng accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice
of China, of sexual assault. The post was quickly taken down and online conversation about Peng in China was censored.
The WTA already has announced that it’ll not return to China this season. For now — and perhaps quite a bit longer — Zheng and her compatriots are without a Chinese showcase for their talents even though the men’s tour has not suspended its events in China.