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China's Li Na returns a shot during her women's singles match against compatriot Peng Shuai at the China Open on Thursday in Beijing. Li won 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3) to earn a quarterfinal date with Agnieszka Radwanska. [Photo by Cui Meng / China Daily]
It wasn't just lip service when Zhang Ze said he would crack the top 100.
The 165-ranked Chinese player proved he's got it in him, stunning French world No 14 Richard Gasquet, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, to make the quarterfinals of the China Open - an ATP 500 tournament - for the first time in his career.
The victory also made history for being the first time a Chinese knocked off a top-20 player, closing a gap of 151 spots in the rankings.
Zhang, who entered the draw as a wild card, said the win was no fluke.
"Chinese men's tennis deserves an epic win like this," the 22-year-old said at a packed post-match news conference. "Actually, I made a well-rounded plan for today's match and went with it. It's not a surprise.
"I sort of took advantage of my coach, who used to instruct him. My coach told me to stay aggressive and attack his forehand. I followed his advice, and it worked well."
Zhang converted all three break points and had six aces.
Gasquet credited Zhang's aggressive style.
"He's talented. He has a big backhand, big forehand. He played fast, and at the end better than me. He deserved the win," said Gasquet, who ended a winning streak that included a Thailand Open title last week.
Winning 90 ranking points thanks to the quarterfinal berth, Zhang will probably improve to No 130 next week, the highest a Chinese man has ever climbed.
The 22-year-old, who has claimed two ATP Futures titles, also became the first Chinese man in 17 years to win Grand Slam qualifying matches, at the French Open and Wimbledon.
Zhang said facing tougher competition has made him a better player.
"I've been able to play more high-level tournaments this year thanks to the ranking," he said. "I started getting used to the competition and atmosphere on this stage. I have no fear, and play much more relaxed against top players."
Approaching the top 100, Zhang has almost reached the point where the governing body has allowed women, like Li Na, to pull away from the State-run system and manage their own careers competitively and financially with their own personal staff.
"It's possible for us as long as we fight our way into the top 100," he said. "I am confident I can make it. But, it remains beyond my reach now. I won't consider (hiring an agent and signing endorsements freely) a lot. I'll focus on my performance instead. If I play well enough, everything else will follow."
Zhang will face German Florian Mayer in the third round, then has a potential semifinal match with top seed Novak Djokovic of Serbia.
Li overcame some early struggles to defeat Shuai Peng, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (3), in their third round match. She'll face Agnieszka Radwanska on Friday in the quarterfinals.