Hsieh Su-wei Is a Lock No One Can Quite Pick

WIMBLEDON, England — Like many professional tennis players, Hsieh Su-wei learned the game from her father, Tze-lung.

Unlike most tennis players, Hsieh also got lessons from her father on picking locks, which remains a favorite hobby.

“I can open small locks,” Hsieh, 33, said after her second-round win at Wimbledon on Wednesday. “If I play with them every day, I can open bigger and bigger ones. When they’re getting bigger, they’re a little bit more complicated.”

As an athlete, the 29th-ranked Hsieh has proved increasingly difficult to figure out.

Since starting last season ranked 103rd, Hsieh has worked her way through the game’s best players. She has wins over elite attackers like Naomi Osaka, who was ranked No. 1 when she lost to Hsieh at the Miami Open in March, and over elite defenders like Simona Halep, who was No. 1 when she lost to Hsieh last year at Wimbledon.

Hsieh’s giant-killing skills were honed by her father, who also taught tennis to his four sons and two other daughters.

“He started tennis one day before us,” Hsieh said. “He walked by a tennis court and said, ‘Wow, I never seen this sport,’ and the next day he brings us in and coaches us.”

As his seven children grew up in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, Hsieh Tze-lung took on various jobs, including locksmith, key copier, wedding photographer and bus driver.

With her unconventional two-handed strokes and even more unusual shot selections, Hsieh flummoxes opponents.

“I think she’s far away from everybody,” said the third-seeded Karolina Pliskova, who will play Hsieh in the third round on Friday. “The style is just, I don’t know — nobody has it.”

Pliskova has had two tough matches with Hsieh, winning in a third-set tiebreaker in Miami last year, and losing, 7-5, in the third in Dubai this year.

She had no desire to expose herself to those challenges more than necessary.

“I don’t feel like practicing with her,” Pliskova said of Hsieh.

Why not?

“You want to go and play normal tennis — and not this tennis — in practice, so … ”

Hsieh’s quirks extend beyond the court, and her interviews can be just as unpredictable as her game.

“Sometimes I do hit very hard, but I like to mix a little bit,” Hsieh said Wednesday. “Depends on my mood, depends on my hair today. Or maybe there’s a handsome guy cheering for me.”

She quickly added in an exaggerated stage whisper: “Shh, don’t write this. My boyfriend might see.”

Hsieh’s game relies on timing and craftiness, making up for a lack of physical strength. She was baffled in the past by a coach who tried to make her serve harder. “I say, ‘Hey, look, my arm is like this,’” she said, holding up one pinkie. “‘So don’t try to break my little arm!’”

That’s why, she said, she uses two hands for her shots.

“I play double hand, so they,” she said, bringing her pinkies together, “become one arm.”

Asked about her limited power, Hsieh erupted in feigned tears and sobs, gasping for air in mock devastation.

“No power?” she exclaimed. “It’s the first time I hear this!”

It’s hard to say, however, that Hsieh’s game lacks anything.

Consider the final three winners she hit on Wednesday in her 7-6 (3), 6-3 win over Kirsten Flipkens:

  • One was a sharply angled cross-court forehand deep in the far corner, which might have looked standard had it not been hit with two hands tight to her body.

  • Another was a gentle cross-court volley that, combined with a preceding drop shot and lob, left Flipkens sprinting up and down the court, hitting a shot between her legs in desperation.

  • The third defied normal tennis descriptions: a sort of forehand chop hit slightly above her shoulder that looked almost like an overhead smash but the ball died short in the box with slight side spin. It was directed into a small sliver of down-the-line court when the entire cross-court was wide open.

Hsieh’s current doubles partner, Barbora Strycova, said she has enjoyed getting closer to a player she has known since juniors but never fully understood.

“Not only on the tennis court, but outside she is very — how can I say? — in her world,” Strycova said.

Hsieh has a second doubles partner at Wimbledon: her brother Cheng-peng, 27, who will play mixed doubles with her at a Grand Slam for the first time.

“He’s a lefty, I’m a righty, and we can do some crazy stuff on the court now,” Hsieh said.

Cheng-peng, who is nicknamed Akon, also plays in an unorthodox style. After winning all four junior Grand Slam titles in doubles, he has made slower progress in his professional career, though he is now ranked 63rd in doubles, one spot below his peak.

“Same like my sister, I’m pretty free,” he said Wednesday after losing his opening-round men’s doubles match, 11-9 in the fifth set. “I don’t know where the ball is going. I just go and play.”

Though he has been on fewer big stages than his sister, Cheng-peng has also made other players marvel at his gifts, such as an overhand serve drop shot.

“This guy has got more talent in his little finger than most of us mere mortals have in our whole bodies,” said the British player Liam Broady.

Su-wei, who has encouraged her brother to resume his dormant singles career, uses an even greater repertoire of shots, all to devastating effect.

Andrea Petkovic, who beat Hsieh in a long match in the second round of the French Open, said she had expected her opponent to be a riddle.

She was able to gain a foothold in the match, she said, once she stopped trying to anticipate Hsieh’s next shots.

“Normally I really like that part of the game, the strategic part,” Petkovic added. “But with her, honestly, I just tried to focus on myself and keep my head down and not look at her, because you get so confused.”

Hsieh said she is able to play with freedom because she has limited obligations and feels no pressure to live up to anyone’s expectations. She has no manager and no sponsors, so she often looks like a recreational player wearing a mishmash of brands on court.

“I’d rather stay simple,” she said. “Just practice and prepare.”

Hsieh reinvests much of her prize money in her career, paying for physical therapists and trainers. She also sends money back home, repaying her father for his many years of work to make her such a beguiling player.

“I think one of the reasons I help him today is I can be so talented mostly because he was working super hard with me,” Hsieh said. “He was trying really hard on all my skills, so he created me as a better player. For this reason, I should give him some support so he can live.”