Tennis star Zhang Zhizhen sets sights on French Open
Nobody predicted Zhang Zhizhen would make a sensational breakthrough at the ATP Madrid Masters earlier in May.
The 26-year-old etched his name in the tennis annals by defeating three top-30 players in a row - Denis Shapovalov, Cameron Norrie and Taylor Fritz - becoming the first player from China to qualify for the quarterfinals of an ATP Masters 1000 event.
"It was a confidence booster for me," Zhang told the Global Times on his achievement. "Experiencing the intensity of the games at the Madrid Masters has allowed me to cope with nervousness on the court when facing strong opponents."
Though recently he struggled during the Rome Masters and an ATP 250 event in Lyon following his success at the Madrid Masters, Zhang is determined to make his mark at the upcoming clay-court Grand Slam - the French Open.
"I hope I can make some breakthroughs at the French Open as I haven't won any matches there," he told the Global Times.
"The competitiveness at the Grand Slams is fierce but my goal is always to win. However, I need to take matches one at a time."
Zhang needed a breakthrough, as he lost in five sets in each of his three major main-draw appearances so far, including being edged out in a fifth-set tiebreaker at the Australian Open earlier in 2023.
He will start his French Open campaign by taking on Dusan Lajovic of Serbia in the first round.
Rise to fame
The significance of Zhang's rise extends far beyond his personal accolades. It also symbolizes the growing prominence of Chinese men's tennis which has long been overshadowed by female trailblazers.
Zhang's journey to this historic moment was far from conventional. Unlike his peers such as 23-year-old Wu Yibing and 18-year-old Shang Junchen, who were hailed as prodigies from a young age, Zhang's ascent was characterized by steady progress and unwavering dedication.
Born and raised in Shanghai, Zhang's passion for sports was ignited by his athletic parents. His father Zhang Weihua was a renowned soccer defender for Chinese Super League giants Shanghai Shenhua, while his mother Qin Wei was a competitive shooter.
When faced with the choice between studying, swimming, or playing tennis at the age of 4, Zhang opted for the latter.
"The swimming classes were too tough for me at that time so I didn't continue," Zhang said.
Now 193 centimeters in height, Zhang is proving quite the athlete himself and has made steady progress since turning professional in 2012.
He is the first tennis player from China to enter the world's top 100, which he accomplished in October 2022. Zhang has since been joined - and overtaken - inside the top 100 by Wu, after he beat John Isner in the Dallas Open to become the first player from China to lift an ATP tour trophy in February.
"Of course, there's competition between us," Zhang said, talking about his relationship with Wu as many compare the duo.
"But we remain good friends."
Originally Zhang opted to pair up with Wu to play in the doubles at the French Open, but after his sensational progress in Madrid, the partnership has been delayed and will start instead at the Wimbledon Championship in July so the two can focus on singles at the culminating event of the clay-court season.
"Actually clay court is the least favorite court for me," Zhang told the Global Times. "But surprisingly this season, the results on the clay court have been the best in my career."
Goal for 2023
Although he faced setbacks and periods of inconsistency, Zhang's determination has remained unshakable.
"There're a lot of times you don't know how to proceed after experiencing frustration," Zhang said, referring the low points in his career. "Though I never thought about quitting the sport, I had to deal with some very bad times."
His ability to overcome adversity and thrive under pressure was evident in his come-from-behind victories, including two consecutive third-set tiebreaking wins.
With each hard-fought point, Zhang shattered preconceived notions and proved that hard work and resilience can lead to extraordinary achievements.
The right-hander known for his powerful serves has recently put defense as his priority in daily training in the buildup to the French Open.
"Recently, I have been trying to strengthen my base defense skills," Zhang said. "It is only possible to make the most of your offensive tactics when you have a solid defense."
He has also set his sights on climbing into the top 50 in the ATP rankings.
"My goal for the year is to challenge the top 50," Zhang told the Global Times, adding he does not want to put too much pressure on himself.
"To achieve that, I need to collect as many points as I can to stay in the top 100 in the tour first."
The Olympic Games in Paris set for 2024 are also on Zhang's agenda, as the top 50 players in the ATP rankings will automatically qualify for the Games.
There is another possible way to qualify, if the athlete can win a continental gold medal - in Zhang's case it means winning the Asian Games in Hangzhou, East China's Zhejiang Province later in 2023.
The Hangzhou Games' return comes with the ATP Tour's resumption in China as well, which was put on hiatus for three consecutive seasons since 2020 due to the pandemic.
"Finally I can return to Shanghai, which is my hometown," Zhang said, confirming he is going to play at the Shanghai Masters scheduled to be held in October.
"It's been a long time since my last home match."
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