The BNP Paribas Open is a special place for Chinese player Peng Shuai. This tournament in 2016 marked the Chinese’ return from a back injury that sidelined her for nine months, an absence that zeroed out her bank of experience and match toughness as one of the tour’s elite. (The former Top 15 singles player also reached the No. 1 doubles ranking, along with lifting the 2013 Wimbledon and 2014 Roland Garros crowns.)
Peng lost that Indian Wells comeback match -- a 6-0, 6-1 drubbing by Yulia Putintseva -- and she would go on to win just once, in Miami, before a string of poor performances that would drag on for six months. In October, she took everyone -- including herself -- by surprise by claiming the Tianjin trophy. That win, coupled with a strong off-season, has put her back in a mindset of enjoying her tennis and chasing her dreams.
We spoke to Peng ahead of facing two-time runner-up Venus Williams in the #BNPPO17 fourth round.
Q: What has been the best part about being back on the tour?
Peng Shuai: “The best part is that I can come back and play. My career is still not finished yet. I can still [chase] my dream.”
Q: And what is that dream?
PS: Many. (laughing) After my injury, I had to start everything basically from zero. First with being able to lift my leg up, then many things. I spent more than a year trying to make things normal.
A big challenge was also with my nerves. I could not really control it.
I also questioned myself a lot last year. I started my season here, and in Miami I was lucky to win one match. But after that, for half a year, at WTA tournaments I could not win one round. I even went play some ITF tournaments — $50k events I hadn’t played in ten years — and I could not get past the second round. I had no chance to win.
So it was a big change and challenge for my mind. I asked myself many times if I could come back. After surgery I had to start over and I was already 30 years old.
And a lot of people didn’t think I could come back. even the doctors said that I only had a 50% chance of returning. [That point in my career] was like being at the bottom of a “V” shape. I just tried and tried and started from the end of last year. And then slowly, slowly I played. I was really lucky I won in Tianjin. Even I didn’t think that I could win the tournament. It was a big improvement and help for my mentality. I tried to believe in myself more.
During the winter training, I pushed myself even more. My coach, my physio -- and even myself -- they don’t know how much my body could handle. It was only little by little that we tried and tried [to improve]. Now I’m just really happy to come back on the tour and keep going.”
Q: You face Venus Williams next. She’s also had her share of struggles. Can you talk about how you see her — as an opponent, as a colleague?
PS: I think she’s still one of the biggest players. She’s really talented and has amazing results and wins many Grand Slams. I was really lucky that I won against her in Beijing [at the China Open, in October 2016]. But you know every time is different. I’m really happy that I can be in the fourth round [here] to play against her again. I’ll try to fight and I hope I can play good against her.
Q: What are your goals this season?
PS: I think now I will play less doubles. At the beginning of the year, I played singles and doubles together and I felt a lot of pressure on my back. My first goal now is to be healthy. And especially now after surgery I have to do a lot of things to take care of my back. My trainer from China is with me all the time. I have to do acupuncture -- many things -- I need to recover and practice for the next match.
First with my singles ranking I wanted to be in the Top 100, but at the beginning of the year I was already in the Top 100, so I was thinking of getting into the Top 50. And I didn’t expect things to go that fast. My next goal is to get into the Top 30. It looks close, but I know it’s a long way to go. It doesn’t matter about the ranking or results, but I’m just happy that I can play and enjoy.
Q: This is your 12th year competing at the BNP Paribas Open. What are your best memories here?
PS: I’m always happy to come here and play. I remember last year it was my first singles tournament after surgery, and I won one game (laughing). At 0-6, 0-5 I still remember -- it was the same court that I played on today -- and then I won one game [against Yulia Putintseva on Stadium 2]. And then I told myself 'Yes, at least I won one game.' And this year from qualifying I went to the fourth round. And now I just think even when I have tough moments, I try to fight, and try not to give up on my dreams.