China’s young aces lead upswing

Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen’s surge up rankings bodes well for the future of the nation’s men’s game

Wu Yibing (left) and Zhang Zhizhen have both produced encouraging results on the ATP Challenger Tour recently. Wu has claimed three titles in a row to rise to No. 174 in the rankings while Zhang’s deep runs at tournaments have taken him to No. 191. Getty Images

All of a sudden, the future of Chinese men’s tennis looks bright again as a crop of surging youngsters led by former US Open junior champion Wu Yibing climbs the rankings.

After saving six match points and withstanding 25 aces, Wu’s revival following years of injury struggles continued on Sunday as he outplayed local favorite Aleksandar Kovacevic, 6-7(10), 7-6(13), 6-3, in Indianapolis, United States, to capture his third straight ATP Challenger Tour title.

Wu’s shots look sharp again, his legs move faster and his composure has apparently reached the next level.

Three titles in a row on the ATP’s entry-level circuit are proof of the huge strides made by Wu, who shot to fame by winning China’s first major boys’ title at the 2017 US Open.

This week he climbed to a career-high world ranking of No. 174 – an astonishing rise considering just four months ago he was at around No. 1,800.

Once considered an unfulfilled talent, Wu has put over four years of injury battles behind him to prove to the doubters that he has what it takes to crack the sport’s higher echelons.

“It’s pretty emotional and I am happy,” Wu told tennis commentator Mike Cation during a podcast interview after his victory on Sunday.

“I proved to myself I am still capable of doing these things. I am still a great tennis player,” said the 22-year-old Zhejiang native. “There are still many things to improve…Even though I am playing good tennis I know I am still not at my top level yet, which means I have a big chance – if healthy – to reach my goals.”

Dubbed “Wonder Boy” after his New York breakout, which he followed up with his maiden Challenger win in Shanghai, Wu’s progress was stunted by a string of injuries to his elbow, lower back, shoulder and wrist.

A combination of surgeries and rehab programs consumed almost three years at the beginning of his pro career until the COVID-19 pandemic hit at the end of 2019 to derail his comeback plans.

Wu, however, never lost faith in fulfilling his potential as he worked his way back from taking seven domestic titles on the Chinese Tennis Association Tour before returning to the international circuit in January.

Healthy and fresh again, Wu picked up his game sooner than expected as he stunned four top-200 rivals en route to claiming his second career Challenger trophy in Florida in June to kick-start his hat-trick of wins.

The setbacks that sidelined him somehow turned out to be an opportunity to mature, reckons Wu, who couldn’t hold back the tears after Sunday’s victory.

“I played even more aggressively when I was younger. Now I play better changing directions, with the shot selection and being more patient,” Wu said of his development during the podcast.

“When I was in the juniors, I struggled a lot playing against guys that can run a lot because I was not patient enough. Now I feel like I kind of find a way to try to go to the net sometimes and change the rhythm with the slices and placement of serves,” he said.

Now as the highest-ranked Chinese man on the ATP Tour, Wu has secured a spot in the qualifiers for next month’s US Open to fight for a return to where it all started.

“I will give my best in the tournament, but more so I want to enjoy my tennis,” said Wu, who will take a two-week break to recharge for Flushing Meadows.

“I approach tennis in a different way. Now it’s like a thing that I really want to enjoy. Maybe that’s why I’m getting better and feeling more relaxed on the court,” he said.

Long-awaited rise:

Joining Wu to spearhead the rise of Chinese men’s tennis is 25-year-old power hitter Zhang Zhizhen, who this week returned to the top 200 following deep runs at five Challenger events.

Zhang, who now ranks No. 191, is drawing confidence from his latest surge as he bids to rediscover the form he showed in 2019, when he won two Challenger titles before reaching No. 136 in the rankings in February 2020-an all-time high for Chinese men’s tennis.

“My experiences over the past three months have helped me understand professional tennis much better,” Zhang told the ATP Tour’s Chinese account on WeChat on Monday, following his Sunday loss to local ace Francesco Passaro in the final of a Challenger event in Italy.

“Playing overseas on my own for over a year taught me that a player cannot stay in his comfort zone if he wants to advance on the pro stage,” said the Shanghai native, who fought through three qualifying rounds to enter the main draw at Wimbledon. last year, thereby becoming the first Chinese mainland male player to do so at any major.

“I feel like I’ve got back to my best form as in 2019. I am looking forward to the hard-court season in North America,” added Zhang, a close friend of Wu.

With Zhang and Wu leading the way, the younger duo of Shang Juncheng, 17, and Buyunchaokete, 20, are also making their mark with impressive runs on the Challenger circuit and the International Tennis Federation’s entry-level adult tours respectively.

Highlighted by retired star Li Na’s two Grand Slam victories (2011 French Open and 2014 Australian Open), China has enjoyed considerable success on the women’s side, yet no male Chinese mainland player has ever cracked the world’s top 100 or even come close to emulating their female counterparts in the majors.

Citing the healthy competition among his peers, Wu is relishing standing tall for Chinese men’s tennis on the world stage.

“This week was the first time that two Chinese men cracked the top 200 at the same time,” he said. “It’s good for Chinese tennis to see many players are playing better, not only one or two… I take this as a responsibility for my country, and this keeps me moving forward.”

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