BEIJING - Chinese netizens hailed Peng Shuai as the "pride" of the country after a heat-related illness ended her US Open dream, with fans extolling her journey from childhood heart surgery to Grand Slam semi-final.
Social media users in China said Peng's collapse against Caroline Wozniacki on Friday brought back memories of compatriot Li Na's defeat in the 2013 Australian Open final when she smashed her head on the floor.
Peng, 28, was seeking to follow Li and become only the second Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam final. However, the bid finished with her being taken from the court in agony, in tears, and in a wheelchair.
Peng was trailing Denmark's Wozniacki 7-6 (7/1) 4-3 when she needed to leave the Arthur Ashe Stadium to seek treatment - believed then to be for cramping - and play was held up for 10 minutes.
She returned, played a few points but then collapsed to the ground before being escorted away by medical staff and officials.
Peng's withdrawal was one of the most discussed topics on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging service similar to Twitter, generating more than 40 million comments, including reposts.
"Hang in there, Shuaishuai," read one post, referring to the star affectionately by repeating her name twice.
"You are the pride of the Chinese people!" Communist Party mouthpiece People's Daily praised Peng in a comment on its Sina Weibo account, saying "there is no loser today... thank you, Shuaishuai, you tried your best!"
'Moved to tears'
Peng, from central China's Hunan province, began playing aged eight, but a childhood heart defect meant she could not over-exert herself.
Against the wishes of her family she decided to have a complicated operation at the age of 12 in hopes of continuing her dream.
That health battle was on the minds of some spectators.
"I felt moved to tears for her when I thought how she was trying so hard and that she once had heart surgery," one user posted online.
Other users expressed surprise at how the match ended and sympathy and concern for Peng.
"I never expected it could end like this," said one post.
"Hope she is fine," it added, followed by three icons showing hands folded in prayer. "She's really great!" Some netizens were less understanding.
"Losing is losing," read one such post. "Why say she would obtain the crown if she wasn't hurt? Could it be that other people win because they are healthy?" Peng has won two Grand Slam doubles titles - the 2013 Wimbledon Championships and the 2014 French Open.
In February, she became the first male or female from China to attain a top ranking when she became the world's number one doubles player.
Peng was the third Chinese player to reach a Grand Slam semi-final after Zheng Jie, who made it to the last four at Wimbledon in 2008 and the Australian Open in 2010, and Li.
Li, China's biggest tennis star, claimed victory in the French Open in 2011 and the Australian Open in 2014. She also made it to the final in Melbourne in 2011 before last year's disappointment.
Leading Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, Li rolled her left ankle twice and hit her head on the floor, ultimately losing the match.
"I felt sad when I watched the video of Peng's withdrawal," user Leoleeooo posted. "I remembered Li Na falling to the ground twice." The post added that hopefully Peng could take the US Open in 2015, just as Li bounced back to triumph in Australia this year.