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Zhang, Wu savor major breakthrough

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2022-08-29 09:25
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Wu Yibing (left) and Zhang Zhizhen pose with tennis balls used in their final qualifying matches for the US Open in New York on Friday. The two will this week become the first male Chinese mainland players to compete in the tournament's main draw. [ATP Tour]

Surging Chinese aces earn historic main-draw appearances at US Open

Believe it or not, the long-awaited rise of Chinese men's tennis is happening-and perhaps at a faster pace than expected.

Overshadowed by the success of their female counterparts for years, China's male players are finally making headlines of their own on the major stage as the country's top two aces-Zhang Zhizhen and Wu Yibing-prepare to make historic main-draw debuts at the US Open on Monday.

After both battled through three qualifying rounds last week, Zhang and Wu will become the first male Chinese mainland players to compete in the main draw at Flushing Meadows.

Zhang, ranked No 138 in the world, will face Dutchman Tim van Rijthoven; Wu, ranked No 178, will take on Georgian veteran Nikoloz Basilashvili.

Wu, the 2017 US Open boys' champion and former junior world No 1, led the charge on Friday by upsetting the qualifying event's 11th seed, Corentin Moutet of France, 7-6 (5), 6-2; Zhang had to overcome multiple rain delays before finishing off Belgium's Zizou Bergs, 6-2, 6-4.

"I believe this is just the beginning," Wu said of the significance of the pair's main-draw appearances in an online interview on Saturday.

"Chinese men's tennis needs breakthroughs but it can't be done by just one guy. Now we have made it through together.

"We hope to see more young Chinese players compete more at bigger events, earn more points and eventually step onto the Grand Slam stage in a larger group," added Wu, a 22-year-old native of Zhejiang province.

Zhang, 25, is encouraged to see more young Chinese talent in the pipeline, including teen star Shang Juncheng, who made it to the final of an ATP Challenger Tour event in Granby, Canada, last week.

"Strong tennis nations all have consistent talent supply, generation after generation," said Zhang, who for the first time in his career is playing a full international calendar of events this season.

"Our generation in China has more opportunities and resources to develop in a more professional way than our predecessors did-yet we have just started.

"I hope more younger guys can catch up fast, without having to suffer a shortage of talent again as before," added the Shanghai native.

As the most experienced of China's current batch of men's players, Zhang made history for his country last year by becoming the first player from the Chinese mainland to compete in the men's singles main draw at Wimbledon following a successful qualifying campaign.

His highest ranking to date-No 136, achieved in February 2020-remains the furthest a Chinese mainland player has risen in the men's standings. He will surpass that should he negotiate the first round at Flushing Meadows this week.

Only Wu Di, Zhang Ze and Li Zhe have represented China in the main draw of the men's singles at a Grand Slam before. All three, who have retired from international tennis, played at the Australian Open via wild-card entries.

On the women's side, the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center has seen impressive runs from Chinese players in both singles and doubles-most notably two-time major champion Li Na's semifinal appearance in 2013, current world No 102 Wang Qiang's quarterfinal berth in 2019 and top ace Zhang Shuai's doubles win with Australia's Samantha Stosur last year.

Four Chinese women led by Zhang Shuai and teen star Zheng Qinwen have made it into this year's main draw directly while 24-year-old rising star Yuan Yue also advanced thanks to three straight-set qualifier wins.

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