He’s been at this for 15 years, and never has been ranked higher than No. 210 in the world.
But Zhe Li will take his talents to Melbourne next month.
The 32-year-old from China, seeded No. 3, pulled off an impressive comeback in the final of the Asia-Pacific Australian Open wild-card playoff.
He defeated Zhang Ze, his Davis Cup teammate and the No. 2 seed, 1-6, 7-6 (2), 6-4.
For that, Li earned a cheque for $2,500 (AUD).
More crucially, the title comes with a spot in the main draw at the Australian Open next month.
These are players who likely will never win a big tournament. So the hanging of the tournament credential around the winner’s neck is a pretty sweet touch that underscores the magnitude of the victory for the winner.
It’s no wonder Li was quite overcome with emotion.
This playoff is the easiest port of entry into a major. This event serves as great promotion for the Australian Open in its Asia-Pacific market, but the calibre is fairly pedestrian.
In his worse moments, Li had to think – especially after six failed attempts in the event – that this day would never come.
Drama at 3-4 in the 3rd
Li’s comeback after a 27-minute wipeout in the first set had been impressive. But in the eighth game of the third set, he was up against it as Zhang had three break points.
Convert one of them, and Zhang would have served for the wild card.
Zhang, a 28-year-old ranked No. 220 (who broke into the top 150 back in 2013) was grunting for dear life, but he wasn’t going after it. He was waiting for Li to miss.
Here’s what happened.
Li broke Zhang in the next game. And before he served for the match, the 32-year-old checked his crib notes.
He took care of business without incident.
Grand Slam debut ahead
Li is currently ranked No. 255, which would have made it tight for him to even get into the Australian Open qualifying.
(His opponent, Zhang, should make it easily – so that’s at least a consolation prize).
In 2016, when his ranking was at its best, he did make the qualifying cut at three majors. Li lost to Edouard Roger-Vasselin in the first round of the Australian Open – after winning the first set 6-1.
At the French Open and Wimbledon, he defeated serviceable players in the first round and fell in the second.
And that’s the extent of his Grand Slam experience.
A career in Challengers
On the ATP Tour, Li has never played an event outside China.
His only match win came in a third-set tiebreak against Teymuraz Gabashvili of Russia in the first round of qualifying in Shanghai in 2010.
Overall, in qualifying/main draw appearances at the ATP Tour level in Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing (going back to 2007), Li has gone 1-15. He has received four main-draw wild cards into the Shanghai Masters. And while three of his opponents were current or former top-10 players, he never won a set.
This year, he was handed a gift: a first-round match against another Chinese wild card. But young Yibing Wu, ranked outside the top 400, defeated him in straight sets.
Li’s career earnings over 15 years hover around $450,000 (about $30,000 a season if you average it out). And yet, he has persevered.
This was the 35th tournament Li has played in 2018 – all of them in Asia and Australia but for a three-week Challenger tour of Canada in July. He has earned a total of $72.000.
Going into this week, he had played 1,225 matches in the pros – 70 per cent of them on the low-level Futures circuit.
You have to either be crazy or stubborn. Or both.
Seventh time lucky
This was the seventh time the Asia-Pacific wild card was determined in a playoff. And Li had taken part all seven times.
He made the final – one match away from the pot of gold – on two previous occasions. Kwong Soon-Woo of Korea beat him last year; the same Zhang Ze defeated him in 2014.
Li also lost to the eventual champion, earlier in the tournament, on two other occasions.
This was his time.
First-round prize money guaranteed
The prize-money distribution for the 2019 Australian Open hasn’t been announced yet. But the increase over 2018 is 10 per cent.
Add 10 per cent to what a first-round loser took home a year ago (and it may be more, if the tournament diverts more of that increase to the earlier rounds), and Li is guaranteed around $50,000 US.
That can be a game-changer, even at this stage of his career.
There isn’t a great history for the Asia-Pacific wild card in Melbourne. That’s not surprising; the rankings of the players indicate they should struggle against top-100 players, or even qualifiers.
But there was one success story.
2016 wild-card champion Denis Istomin of Uzbekistan – who, as it happens, was born just two weeks before Li and turned pro the same year, had a great 2017 Australian Open.
Wild card to the round of 16
Istomin reached a career high in singles of No. 33 in 2012. But he was down in the rankings as low as No. 144 just two months before the playoff.
He got through to the fourth round in Melbourne. Istomin upset No. 2 seed Novak Djokovic in five sets in the second round. He followed that up with a five-set win over No. 30 seed Pablo Carreño Busta of Spain before falling to Grigor Dimitrov in four sets.
It was a major boost. Istomin rose to No. 80, and it enabled him to spend the entire 2017 season at the ATP Tour level.
One thing’s for sure. Li will be a story to watch and root for in January.
He was asked by a Tennis Australia correspondent who he’d love to face in his Grand Slam debut.
“I actually thought about it this morning. I hope it can be Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic,” he said.
Hopefully he’ll get his wish.
(Screen shots from Tennis Australia’s livestreaming of the Asia-Pacific playoff).