Of all the late-career surprises at The Open -- the first-time New York run at age 34 of Victor Estrella Burgos; the improbable resurgence of former prodigy Mirjana Lucic-Baroni at 32 -- none is more jarring than the journey China's Peng Shuai is taking to her first Grand Slam quarterfinal.
The 28-year-old Peng continued her seed-killing on Sunday night with a straight-sets win over 14th-seeded Lucie Safarova. Her Wiki page was updated seconds after the win, and if the astonished faces of the kids crowded into the tiny Court Five were any indication, she'll be in for a ticker-tape parade along the Great Wall when she gets home.
The unseeded Peng (pronounced "Pung") might be a complete unknown here, but she is revered in China as one of a small handful of pioneers who unshackled tennis from the country's Communist Party. China's 23 provinces each have state-funded teams that compete in the all-important National Games, which in some quarters is considered more prestigious than Grand Slams thanks to a policy called Juguo tizhi, which roughly translates to "whole country support for the elite sport."
The soft-spoken Peng came of age at a threshold moment for Chinese tennis. In the early 2000s, while provincial leaders couldn't see much farther than their next tournament, government officials were taking a broader view of China's image abroad. And Peng became one of the country's top international hopes. "The key was balancing the aspirations of the Chinese leadership while incentivizing Peng to perform," her former agent, John Cappo, told me recently for a piece I reported on tennis in China. "It was all about showing them how she could bring greater glory to China."
Peng's performance over the past couple of weeks is the stunning realization of that decade-old policy -- and the reason the Chinese are plowing billions of dollars into tennis. Peng started her season in January facing Li Na in the finals of the Shenzhen Open, a tournament in a city of 10 million people that didn't exist three years ago.
It was only the second time in WTA history that two Chinese players faced off in a sanctioned event, and the first time in China's history. (Li won.) But it won't be the last. Everywhere you look in China these days, gleaming new stadia are rising in cities that don't know how to spend their vast riches, from Li's hometown of Wuhan, which also has 10 million residents, to Peng's base in Tianjin, pop: 14 million.
Not surprisingly, all this investment has made China a major, major player in women's tennis. (Without pioneers like Peng and Li, the men have lagged.) The WTA will hold 10 events on the mainland in 2014, up from two in 2011. And it's no accident its year-end finals will be Asia-based in Singapore.
Li is the better known of the pair, but inside China, she's also regarded as the more selfish one. Valued at an estimated $40 million, Li makes no bones about her desire to cash in on her success and has roiled the party by snubbing it at just about every turn. (She set Twitter on fire after winning the Australian Open in January by thanking everyone except the Chinese Tennis Association.)
Peng is regarded as humbler and more party-friendly. Asked why she still plays for her provincial team while Li plays only on the pro circuit, Peng says: "It's only once a year and I'm happy to do it. From a young age, I got support from [the Tianjin team]. If they ask me, I'm really appreciative. It's not that difficult."
But that Vaseline-lensed look at the present belies a past in which Peng wasn't treated quite so well. When she asked for the right to choose her own coach, set her own schedule and be her own boss, she was branded unpatriotic by the Chinese media and a traitor to her party. In 2005, when she carried the top ranking in China into the National Games, she was punished for not winning in the finals. "The funding from her provincial team dried up because the view was she didn't accomplish the mission," her former coach, Alan Ma, told me.
Still, Peng has persisted. And it paid off for China in a now-legendary policy that she helped create called Danfei, or "flying solo." It lets players who are willing to forgo Communist Party subsidies choose their own paths. "Yes, we had a fight," Peng says of her past with the CTA. "But it's the same as when you fight with your parents or your best friend. Sometimes you fight. It's not like now. China didn't know what pro was. Yes, I lost a couple of years at the time. But looking back is looking forward. Now everyone understands more."
Danfei has created some complex issues for the Chinese. On one hand, top players are so coddled by their provincial clubs that they don't see a need to turn pro, creating something of an existential crisis for the WTA. But all the investment in pro events is also raising the profile of the homegrown stars who are courageous enough to take the leap. Five other Chinese players entered the US Open main draw -- and that was with Li Na sitting out with a knee injury.
"I love play in my country because now they have more tournaments," Peng told reporters in New York last week. "I feel every year I was travelling a lot. I didn't have much time, you know, to spend with my friends, my parents."
Peng has managed to ascend to the top of the doubles rankings with her longtime partner Hsieh Su-wei from Chinese Taipei. But she's struggled in singles. Her 39th ranking coming into the US Open was lower than it was a decade ago, when she was 33rd.
All of which makes this run so special. After Peng beat 28th seed Roberta Vinci in the third round, she told reporters, "I think for myself I need to be more courage, be more like stronger." And sure enough, she became stronger against Safarova. She extended points like the breathtaking 21-shot rally late that came in the second set and won the match on an ace up the middle.
The fact that the match was held on a tiny court on the perimeter of the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center didn't matter a bit to Peng. The handful of fans who were shouting "China, China" were channeling 1.4 billion people.
Ask Peng about her pioneering role and she answers softly. "I am happy that Chinese tennis has grown so big, but I am just a little mark in there," she says.
As she gets ready to become only the third Chinese woman ever to play in a Grand Slam quarterfinal, Peng is finally having her moment to fly solo.