Trailblazers eye more breakthroughs
China's in-form trio bidding to continue recent clay-court surge at French Open
From left: China's Zhang Zhizhen, Shang Juncheng and Wu Yibing have enjoyed encouraging results on clay this season and hope to maintain that form at the French Open, which started on Sunday. Agencies
With three Chinese men featuring in the main draw for the first time at the French Open, hopes are high that China can continue to add to its milestones on clay after a season of many breakthroughs.
Traditionally developing talents on hard courts, China's men are turning things around on their least-favorite surface, with a surging trio of world No 54 Wu Yibing, 71st-ranked Zhang Zhizhen and teenage star Shang Juncheng primed to make their presence felt in the main draw in Paris.
As the youngest and lowest ranked of the three, 18-year-old Shang racked up three solid qualifying wins last week to join Wu and Zhang, who both qualified via the rankings, in the main draw in Paris, to form a strong Chinese contingent at Roland Garros.
It is the second time the three Chinese men are appearing in a main draw after they did so at the Australian Open in January.
"We are proud to do it again here after we did it together already in Melbourne. It's a great learning process for each of us and fuels us with a boost of positive energy," Shang said of the collective effort during an online interview with Chinese media on Saturday.
"I think I've grown more comfortable playing on clay after surviving the qualifiers. The key is to stay aggressive yet keep patient, and to play at a fast pace to contain the opponent's top spins in long rallies," said Shang, who secured his maiden French Open main-draw appearance after beating Argentine Renzo Olivo, 2-1, in the final qualifying round on Thursday.
Shang, who opens against clay specialist Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru on Monday, is endeavoring to keep his expectations in check.
"The South Americans are more comfortable on clay than us, so I need to take one point at a time, hopefully play my best tennis and force errors from him," said the world No 200.
As China's top-ranked man, Wu is facing the toughest first-round opponent among the three in Spanish veteran Roberto Bautista Agut, a former world No 9 and the 2019 Wimbledon semifinalist.
Wu's recent momentum on clay, though, has raised hopes for yet another giant-killing performance by the 23-year-old Zhejiang native, who beat current world No 8 Taylor Fritz and the big-serving former world No 8 John Isner, both of the US, to win his maiden ATP Tour singles title in Dallas, Texas in February. That was also China's first title triumph on the circuit.
Wu continues to show rapid improvement on the physically demanding clay courts, highlighted by his quarterfinal run at an ATP 250 tourney last week in Geneva, where he overcame 2018 French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato of Italy in straights sets in the second round.
However, Wu starts his Roland Garros campaign nursing a left-leg muscle strain which forced him to retire while 4-1 down in the first set of his quarterfinal against Germany's Alexander Zverev.
Should Wu and Shang both survive their opening tests in Paris, they will meet in a Chinese "derby "in the second round, which is expected to trigger a huge interest in China.
Zhang, as the oldest of the trio, reckons China's rise in men's tennis has only just begun.
"Right now, it's the three of us, but perhaps in the future, we might have four or even five. I hope to see more Chinese players participating in the main draw," said Zhang, who opens his campaign against 53rd-ranked Dusan Lajovic.
Serbia's Lajovic won his second ATP title in Bosnia and Herzegovina last month, stunning 22-time major winner Novak Djokovic in the third round at the ATP 250 event.
Zhang's appearance in Paris makes him the first Chinese mainland player to have entered the main draw at all four majors — after fighting through qualifying rounds at Wimbledon in 2021, last year's US Open and this year's Australian Open.
He's never won a match on this stage, though, dropping his three previous openers, all in five sets.
"I expect something better will happen this time," said Zhang, a 26-year-old Shanghai native. "Otherwise, I will have to accept a fourth defeat in a row."
Like Wu, Zhang is enjoying an upswing on clay of late, upsetting three top-30 players in Canada's Denis Shapovalov, Cameron Norrie of Britain and Fritz to reach the quarterfinals of last month's Madrid Open. That is the furthest stage a Chinese player has reached at an ATP Masters 1000 event.
"My performances throughout the clay season have definitely boosted my confidence. But against such a tough opponent I need to play my best, make all the necessary preparations, and not be complacent," he said.
Despite the progress of the men, the Chinese women boast a stronger representation in Paris, with five players, led by 19th seed Zheng Qinwen, making into the main draw at a tournament won by China's Li Na in 2011.
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