When the U.S. Open began, Peng Shuai said she did not relish being the highest-ranked Chinese player in the tournament, preferring it when Li Na is around, absorbing most of the pressure and attention from the Chinese fans who have become quite a cheering section in Flushing Meadows in recent years.
But with the third-ranked Li missing the tournament with a knee injury, Peng has leapt into the spotlight and soared through the draw, ousting the Swiss teenager Belinda Bencic in the quarterfinals Tuesday, 6-2, 6-1.
At 28, Peng is enjoying a rather late coming-out party. The U.S. Open is her 37th Grand Slam tournament and she was playing in her first singles quarterfinal. Now, she will give her ranking (39th) and her newly devoted fans a boost by playing in her first semifinal, against the winner of Tuesday night's match between 10th-seeded Caroline Wozniacki and 13th-seeded Sara Errani in the semifinals Friday.
Peng has enjoyed plenty of success as a doubles player, winning two Grand Slam titles with Hsieh Su-wei, but her singles career has taken awhile to come together. "It's an amazing time for me," Peng said after her match, apologizing as she choked back tears. "It's a long time to play, a long time in my career. So many times I thought to give up, to stop playing. But my coach and my parents tell me to keep fighting, to keep playing and never give up, that this day would come."
Peng has been dominant in her matches here. She did not lose her serve against Bencic and has won 36 straight service games, stretching back to her second-round victory over Agnieszka Radwanska. She faced only two break points Tuesday, and had a mere seven unforced errors to 17 winners.
"From the beginning year, I was doing lot of fitness and also like I keep practice, try to improve my game," Peng said. "Maybe this time I find a way or I catch like right time. And then just try to do what I can do on the court."
Peng has come back from far more than a just a slow start to her singles career. When she was 12, she had surgery to correct a congenital heart defect. After recovering, though, her doctors told her she could return to tennis.
With this victory, she whisked Bencic out of the Cinderella role she had been settling into as she swept through an upset-filled women's draw. Bencic, 17, was recalling memories of the last Swiss woman to tear around these courts as a teenager, Martina Hingis - not only because they share a home country but also because they share a coach: Hingis' mother, Melanie Molitor.
But since the days when Hingis won the U.S. Open as a 16-year-old in 1997, women's tennis has become more of a power game, a pattern that foretold Peng's domination of Bencic.
Peng used every bit of her strength advantage, pounding winners down the line and giving Bencic no opportunities to swing the match to her advantage. Improving her strength is a way Peng said she has made strides as a singles player. She also has an unusual playing style, hitting two-handed off both her forehand and backhand.
"I think she has a dangerous game with both hands and the ball is really coming different from her racket," Bencic said. "I had a little bit troubles with this today. Also angles are great. She's a great doubles player, as well. It's good for her."
In another twist, Peng's breakthrough in singles comes just as her doubles partnership with Hsieh is ending. Despite their success, they came into this tournament saying it was their last Grand Slam event together, though they declined to say why they were breaking up.
Peng and Hsieh have been playing together since 2009 and reached the No. 2 ranking as a team, but they lost here in the fourth round to Kimiko Date-Krumm and Barbora Zahlavova Strycova on Monday.
Still going in the doubles draw is Hingis, who is playing with Flavia Pennetta of Italy. Together, they reached the semifinals with a victory over Kveta Peschke of the Czech Republic and Katarina Srebotnik of Slovenia, 6-4, 6-3.
Since returning to tennis as a doubles specialist last year, Hingis, 33, had not advanced out of the first round in two other Grand Slam appearances, at last year's U.S. Open and at Wimbledon.
"When I started playing again in the doubles, it was definitely something that I was hoping for," said Hingis, who won the last of her 15 Grand Slam titles in 2006, in mixed doubles at the Australian Open. "Now, with Flavia, it's becoming reality, and I'm just really enjoying the moment."
The women's doubles draw got another jolt in the quarterfinals Tuesday when Venus and Serena Williams lost, 7-6 (5), 6-4, to Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina of Russia. The ending came in particularly stunning fashion when Serena Williams double-faulted on match point, sending their opponents into a giddy celebration on the court.
Serena Williams has played seven matches in past six days in reaching the quarterfinals in singles and doubles. Makarova and Pennetta are also still alive in both singles and doubles.
"For me, singles and doubles is really important, and I give them the same 100 percent all the time," said Pennetta, who will play Serena Williams in singles on Wednesday night.
In the juniors tournament, a startling speed bump interrupted the ride of the 15-year-old CiCi Bellis, who stirred the main draw with her first-round upset of No. 12 seed Dominika Cibulkova last week. She was hoping to take that momentum through the junior tournament, where she was the No. 1 seed. But she could not get past Natalia Vikhlyantseva of Russia and lost in the second round, 7-6 (9), 2-6, 6-1. She remains in the junior doubles tournament.
Bellis seemed to bounce back from losing the tense first-set tiebreaker, where she fought off six set points, and dominated Vikhlyantseva in the second set. But after taking the allowed 10-minute break after the second set in the sweltering early afternoon sun, Bellis seemed to wilt in the third.
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