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Chasing pack's progress provides more positive signs

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-01-02 10:08
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Up-and-coming Chinese talents Bai Zhuoxuan (left) and Buyunchaokete enjoyed an encouraging 2023 season. [Photo/Xinhua]

Chinese tennis had a season to remember in 2023 — but not only because of the trophies and feats of the nation's front-runners.

The progress of the ambitious chasing pack, led by Bai Zhuoxuan and Buyunchaokete, deserves equal acclaim.

A former top-10 junior, Bai finished the 2023 season ranked 88th on the WTA Tour, completing a meteoric rise from No 362 at the end of 2022, when she was too nervous to ask for a photo with three-time major finalist Ons Jabeur at a tournament in the Tunisian star's hometown.

Fast-forward seven months and Bai was competing against Jabeur in the second round of Wimbledon, having racked up three qualifier wins and a first-round victory over Belgium veteran Ysaline Bonaventure in her Grand Slam main-draw debut.

"If someone had told me back then that I would be facing Jabeur on Court 1 at Wimbledon, I wouldn't have believed it, and I would have thought they were joking," Bai told in a recent interview.

This past season has been a whirlwind for the 21-year-old Henan native, who has emerged as a player to watch this year.

As perhaps the most obscure member of China's seven top-100 players on the women's tour, Bai's Wimbledon breakout didn't come completely out of the blue. The versatile baseliner racked up 12 singles titles on the ITF tour after taking a break from international competition amid the pandemic.

"This is a very important year for my career. I started the season ranked outside the top 300 and needed to move up the rankings as quickly as possible to prove that I have the game and potential. At the end of the day, you just have to let the results speak for themselves," said Bai.

"In terms of confidence, this year is a big boost for me. There are a lot of firsts that I've been working very hard to achieve, and only with these can you take further steps."

Buyunchaokete has enjoyed a similarly promising start in the pro ranks.

Hailing from the Mongolian ethnic group in Northwest China, he made his presence felt on the entry-level ATP Challenger Tour in 2023.

Carrying on the momentum of winning six ITF titles in 2022, Buyunchaokete claimed his first Challenger singles title in Seoul in April and registered his first tour-level win in October at the ATP 1000 Shanghai Masters, where his first-round opponent Miomir Kecmanovic had to retire due to injury in the third set.

A highlight of Buyunchaokete's season was a second-round clash against his childhood idol, former world No 1 Andy Murray, in June at a Challenger event at Surbiton, England.

Despite losing to the three-time major winner in two tight sets, Buyunchaokete showed the guts and determination that helped him upset Denmark's current world No 8 Holger Rune at the 2019 Australian Open boys' tournament.

"He's a high-energy, positive guy. If you look at results from last year, I think he played more than 100 matches last year, which is pretty rare," Murray said of Buyunchaokete after the match. "I think he's going to be a good player."

The world No 171 is drawing inspiration from countrymen who are enjoying success higher up the rankings — Zhang Zhizhen and Wu Yibing.

The camaraderie among the Chinese men is helping to bring out their best, reckons Buyunchaokete.

"They give me a lot of confidence because I didn't think I could be top-50 or something, but now they're close so I feel I can make it also. We have a good relationship, we text a lot," he said.

Now, Buyunchaokete and all his compatriots in the pro ranks will be hoping 2024 brings more breakthroughs, trophies and memorable moments on the tennis court.

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