By Damian Kust
Li Na, the winner of two Grand Slam titles, might have retired back in 2014, but her legacy goes on with many other Chinese women among the top echelon of the game. A trio between the ages of 19 and 21–Qinwen Zheng, Xiyu Wang, and Xinyu Wang–have already broken the top 100, joining Shuai Zhang and Lin Zhu. Former World No. 12 Qiang Wang is having a bit of a decline this year, but also sits pretty close to the world’s best-hundred. Unfortunately, Shuai Peng has recently made headlines for reasons unrelated to tennis, but back in her prime, she led the WTA doubles rankings, a feat that the aforementioned Zhang could achieve with a good result in Toronto.
Despite all that amazing success for Chinese women, the country has never had a top 100 male player. The one that came closest was Zhizhen Zhang, peaking at World No. 136, edging Di Wu (140), and Ze Zhang (148). While the latter two are probably more or less out of the picture by now (Wu hasn’t played since the pandemic, Ze Zhang is sporadically showing up on the ITF circuit), Zhizhen Zhang is still very much in the running to be his country’s first top 100 player on the men’s side. It could be a real race between him, Yibing Wu, and Juncheng Shang as all three claimed ATP Challenger Tour titles across the past month.
Junior star developing at an amazing pace
Let’s start from the teenage prodigy Shang, who has just claimed his maiden Challenger title at the age of 17. The summer before, he made it to the top of the ITF Junior Rankings and while he wasn’t able to capitalize on it with a Grand Slam title (lost the US Open final to Daniel Rincon), soon enough he was simply too good for the under-18 circuit. Shang won four titles in his first eight ITF Men’s Tennis Tour main draw appearances, which quickly allowed him to play a Challenger-oriented schedule, even if in most cases he had to start from the qualifying.
Truth be told, until Lexington last week, it wasn’t even going that well. Shang’s game is still very much unpolished and doesn’t have that much consistent weight of shot. He’s not powerless though. When he unleashes on a forehand, it’s an extremely satisfying stroke. His skills of using some bits of that power to build up the point are still lacking, but there’s just a lot of natural talent and shotmaking capabilities.
Many Asian talents have struggled to take their games to the main tour in the past, mostly on their weak physicality. One could argue that even Kei Nishikori has suffered from that, despite making a Grand Slam final and getting to the top 5, he’s always struggling to keep himself injury-free. Shang’s still growing and maturing physically and hopefully, he can avoid these issues in the future plus develop his game in that way.
He comes from a sporting family. The father, Shang Yi, made a couple of appearances for the Chinese national football team, while the mother, Wu Na, won three medals at the Table Tennis World Championships (including gold in Mixed Doubles 1997). Shang was spotted early by IMG and has been working at their campus in Florida for the past three years. In the last couple of weeks, he’s also added the former World No. 1 and Australian Open runner-up, Marcelo Rios, to his team. The Chilean legend will soon decide whether he wants to work with Shang long-term.
Coming back from a three-year-long hiatus way stronger than before
Yibing Wu was the Junior World No. 1 as well, achieving a pretty incredible feat back in 2017. He won the US Open boys’ singles and doubles titles, before going straight to a Challenger in Shanghai and winning that too. Unfortunately, it took a long while before this turned into any consistent pro tour results. Being extremely injury-prone, Wu had to schedule himself lightly and still wasn’t managing to stay in good shape. At the beginning of 2019, he started a hiatus from his playing career that ended up lasting almost three years.
It wasn’t just the injuries, the pandemic was obviously a factor as well. The aforementioned Shang probably wasn’t impacted by it that much living at the IMG Academy in the States, but a lot of Chinese pros disappeared off the tennis map (on another note, Wu is signed up with IMG too). From time to time, we’d only get reports about him competing (and winning) some all-Chinese exhibition tournaments.
The 22-year-old came back to professional sport this year and while in the middle of April he had just one ATP point, he’s already made another three hundred since. Wu currently owns a 30-4 win/loss record for the year and the crazy part is, three of these four losses have come via retirement (and two of them not even in losing positions, 5-5 vs Gage Brymer and 6-1 5-5 up on Shuichi Sekiguchi).
While it shows that fitness is still a problem for Wu, he’s simply been a beast this year, already adding three Challenger titles to his Shanghai crown from 2019. His return game is excellent, he’s got some truly amazing hand skills and generates a lot of power despite not seemingly having the biggest frame (while also staying consistent). He disappeared for three years only to return with a much more complete game and while it’s a shame we hadn’t seen him for so long, maybe this kind of run never would have happened without it.
Sudden clay breakthrough, incredible confidence
Zhizhen Zhang is in a much less developmental stage of his career. The 25-year-old won a couple of hard-court Challengers in China back in 2019, which helped him get to the aforementioned peak ranking of World No. 136. He wasn’t able to push on though and had a poor start to his 2020 campaign, before the pandemic really stopped him in his tracks again.
Unlike Shang and Wu, Zhang has already debuted in a Grand Slam main draw, qualifying for Wimbledon last year and losing in five sets to Antoine Hoang. While some perceived him as a potential top 100 prospect back in 2019, it had really been a while since he looked like it on the court. It all changed very suddenly in Luedenscheid at the end of July. Zhang made the final and went on to score 18 wins to just 3 losses since then, including a Challenger title at Cordenons last week.
Zhang’s game wasn’t easy for me to comprehend in the past. I asked him about his improvement last month in Braunschweig, to which he replied – “Beginning of the year, I was losing all the matches almost. I think also it’s part of because last year, I didn’t play too many tournaments. After Wimbledon, I [went] back to China. Then I missed a lot of weeks and just built my game from the beginning, step by step. Beginning of the year maybe my mental was a little bit of a problem. (…) Now I have more confidence, you win some matches and the confidence is coming and then the tennis is just coming.”
To be honest with you, I was really hoping for something more game-related, but in hindsight, confidence is really the key. Zhang is way more trigger-happy now, but in a good way. He wants to be the first one to strike and has supreme belief in his shots, not afraid to go down-the-line from either wing. His serve has also become a very potent weapon. Being tall and extremely strong physically, he can probably avoid a lot of the issues Asian players have faced in the past. While his Braunschweig run ended in a semifinal loss to Maximilian Marterer where he missed eight match points (most were brilliant saves by the German though), this didn’t even seem to make any dents in his new-found confidence.
Who’ll get there first?
Wu and Zhang are both firmly in the top 200 and there are a couple of reasons why they’re the frontrunners in the China top 100 race. They both made it into the US Open qualifying, where a few main draw wins could get you an insane amount of points. They also aren’t defending a single result until the end of the season – due to his hiatus, Wu will only drop one point before April 2023. Zhang’s window isn’t that long, but he finished his 2021 campaign after Hamburg (July) to return to China, so he’s not defending anything until January.
Both players seem to have some surface question marks over them. Wu’s game on American hard courts this year was quite reliant on the pop on his groundstrokes he was getting in faster conditions. He also likes taking the ball pretty early. If that’s gone, can he do damage on clay or when it’s much slower? Zhang had his rise on European clay for the past month and while he’s shown he’s capable on hard courts in the past, we’ll see how smoothly the transition goes for him this time around.