Zhang sure she's on upward curve

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Zhang Shuai of China competes during the women's singles third round match against Angelique Kerber of Germany at China Open tennis tournament in Beijing, China, Oct. 4, 2018. Zhang Shuai won 2-1. (Xinhua/Liu Jinhai)

Pushing a two-time Grand Slam champion to three sets at a premier event would make most underdogs proud, but that wasn't the case for Chinese wild card Zhang Shuai following her 3-6, 6-3, 6-2 loss to Spain's seventh-seeded Garbine Muguruza at the WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai on Wednesday night.

In her first group match, Zhang's aggressive play forced the 2016 French Open and 2017 Wimbledon champ to the brink of an emotional meltdown early in the second set when Muguruza threw a ball out of the court in frustration over the barrage of fierce shots she faced.

Zhang's brave fight in a losing effort earned raucous applause and Muguruza's respect, but it wasn't enough to cheer her up.

"A loss is a loss no matter how you did during the process," Zhang, ranked world No 33, said with tears in her eyes. "I could've done better but I didn't. It's so frustrating knowing you were so close but still come up short."

As disappointing as the result was, the fact that Zhang almost broke Muguruza's spirit during the two-hour seesaw match was solid proof of the improvement that has given the Chinese confidence she can beat the world's best.

Zhang, who had an eight-year first-round losing streak at Slams from 2008-15, finally broke through at the 2016 Australian Open, where she advanced to the quarterfinals all the way from qualification.

"I've learned to focus only on the positives after playing so many years and often facing defeat," said the 29-year-old, who made her professional debut in 2006.

"Match by match and week by week, I feel I made progress this year. This helps me stay upbeat and confident no matter what happens."

Resilience and hard work have paid off for Zhang since her Melbourne surprise, highlighted by a late-season surge this year when she reached the semifinals in Hiroshima and Hong Kong, the last 16 at the Premier 5 Wuhan Open and the quarterfinals of the Premier Mandatory China Open in Beijing.

"I saw she played very well during the Asian swing and I'm not surprised," Muguruza, a former world No 1, said of Zhang's game.

"Every time I see her in the draw, I know it's going to be a big fight and never easy because we're both aggressive players. Her intensity is improving and it makes it interesting."

After achieving the No 1 ranking in September of last year, Muguruza, the only Grand Slam champion in the field, was hit with multiple injuries.

This year she claimed just one title (Monterrey, Mexico) and reached the semifinals at the French Open - the only major in which she progressed past the second round.

"I knew at some point that some ups and downs were going to come, especially with the body. It's very difficult to maintain a high level for a lot of years," she said.

"I'm just trying to keep the enthusiasm. I feel I'm a very competitive person, so even though there are tough moments and injuries, I know that hard work will pay off eventually.

"I'm just trying to improve so I can be better next season."

The WTA Elite Trophy Zhuhai is a second-tier year-end tournament with the world's No 9-20 players competing in round-robin group format for the winner's 700 ranking points and a total prize pool of $2.35 million.

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