While China’s top female players continue to make major strides globally, their male counterparts rarely even muster baby steps.
That’s why victories for local underdogs Zhang Zhizhen and Wu Di in the first round of this week’s Zhuhai Championships offered fresh hope that the nation’s men might finally be making some progress on court.
A wild-card entry at the ATP 250 tournament, the 224th-ranked Zhang stunned this year’s US Open last-16 player Dominik Koepfer of Germany (No 85) in straight sets on Tuesday, a day after veteran world No 338 Wu Di ousted Japan’s Tatsuma Ito (No 141) in three sets at Hengqin Tennis Center.
It marks the first time two Chinese advanced to the second round of an ATP Tour event since Zhang did so with veteran Bai Yan in 2015, when this tournament was in Shenzhen.
The last time China could celebrate any win at this level was in October 2017, when Wu Di upset Frenchman Jeremy Chardy at the Shanghai Masters.
“By beating more experienced foreign rivals every so often, I feel like the gap between us and the world is not as big on court as it is in the rankings,” said 22-year-old, 6-foot-4 Zhang, who will face veteran Italian Andreas Seppi in the second round. “If I play my ‘A’ game, I definitely have a chance to beat a top-100 player, but it’s very hard for me to hang in there every match throughout the year.”
Zhang, who is managed by Roger Federer’s Croatian coach Ivan Ljubicic, along with Wu Yibing, the 2017 US Open junior champion, are products of a talent development program that relies heavily on the input of Western coaches and operates outside the country’s traditional State-run system.
The new breed have forged their careers with financial backing from their families, promotion and marketing by professional agencies, and logistical support from the Chinese Tennis Association and their respective provincial governing bodies.
This approach allows them to compete on a more flexible schedule, choose their own sponsors and hire foreign expertise.
For Wu Di, a product of the old system, Monday’s victory was welcome respite from his decade-long grind in the lower ranks, which has yielded just four ATP singles wins.
After autographing the lens of a TV camera, now a common match-winning gesture on tour, the 28-year-old Wuhan native became emotional.
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“I was so nervous that I felt like I couldn’t even write Chinese because I didn’t know when I would get to do that again at this level,” said the diminutive baseliner.
Echoing Zhang’s comments, Wu Di said that finding consistency was key to Chinese players’ chances of making the transition from one-hit wonders to true elite contenders.
“We can play way better than our rankings suggest in a certain match, but we haven’t been able to maintain that level whenever we need it,” said Wu Di, who will next face fourth-seeded Borna Coric of Croatia on Thursday.
“That’s the difference between us and the top 100 players, who are more focused and consistent all year long.”
Restricted by their low rankings, Chinese men formerly had limited access to higher-caliber ATP tournaments, which in turn resulted in a lack of matches against higher-ranked opponents.
That hampered their development and stalled their ambitions of moving up the standings
However, a recent surge in the number of pro tournaments being staged in China has delivered much-needed tougher tests.
The ATP calendar now has four tour-level tournaments in China – the two ongoing 250 events in Zhuhai and Chengdu, the 500-level China Open in Beijing and the Shanghai Masters, part of the top-tier 1000 series.
That makes the tour’s China swing an invaluable experience for youngsters looking to test themselves against the world’s best through wild-card entries.
“We have our confidence boosted by winning again at this level and the chances offered by home organizers,” said Wu Di.
“It’s time to dream big and put in the hard work to keep moving upwards.”