PARIS (AFP): Twelve months ago, a despondent Wu Yibing was retiring with injury from a low-level clay court tournament in Italy, earning a meagre 530 euros ($570) for his troubles.
Fast-forward a year and 23-year-old Wu is his country’s highest-ranked male player at 59 in the world and about to spearhead a landmark assault at the French Open where it has been 86 years since a Chinese man last played in the main draw.
Wu will not be alone when the season’s second major gets underway on Sunday as Zhang Zhizhen is also guaranteed a spot. Shang Juncheng can make it three Chinese men in the tournament if he gets through the final qualifying round on Thursday.
“The excitement in China around the top Chinese male players is palpable now and there is strong media interest linked to the breakthrough of these players on tour,” ATP executive vice-president Alison Lee told AFP.
Kho Sin-Khie and Choy Wai-Chuen were the last men to represent China in the French capital back in 1937. Long overshadowed by their female counterparts, Wu and Zhang have been racking up an impressive series of ‘firsts’.
Wu was the first Chinese man to make the third round of the US Open in 2022 where it took world number one and defending champion Daniil Medvedev to stop him. He took his new-found celebrity status with good humour.
“I’m a good-looking guy, I guess,” he replied when told he was the hottest topic on Chinese social media. Earlier this year, Wu became the first Chinese player to win an ATP Tour title in Dallas.
Unlike the small change he pocketed at Francavilla al Mare in Italy this time last year, Wu is guaranteed at least 69,000 euros ($74,300) just by playing his first round at Roland Garros.
A US Open junior champion in 2017, Wu, the son of a boxer, was sidelined for the best part of three years from March 2019 to January 2022 with elbow, back, shoulder and wrist injuries. Covid lockdown deepened his gloom.
However, he rapidly made up for lost time. In March 2022, he was 1,869 in the world; in April this year, he reached a career high of 55. Wu won his first ATP Tour-level match on clay in Rome last week and has already added two more in Geneva this week on his way to the quarter-finals.
Zhang, 26, is currently ranked at 70 and has yet to win a main draw match in three attempts at the Slams.
He tried and failed to make the French Open main draw in 2021 but was defeated in qualifying. This spring, however, he went all the way to the quarter-finals on clay at the Madrid Masters from qualifying, defeating three top-30 players in a row in Denis Shapovalov, Cameron Norrie and Taylor Fritz.
That made him the first Chinese man to make the last eight of a Masters event. Zhang was the first Chinese man to break the top 100 in October 2022 after becoming the first from China to play in the Wimbledon main draw in the Open era.
Despite their landmark Paris appearances, Wu and Zhang are a long way from emulating female compatriot Li Na.She was the first Chinese woman to capture a major at the 2011 French Open which she backed up by adding the 2014 Australian Open.
Zhang was only 14 when Li triumphed in the French capital and his memory of that historic moment is, by his own admission, vague. “I’m very sorry, I really not watching too many matches from the girls,” he said in Madrid.
The breakthrough of Wu and Zhang is timely following the pandemic and the fall-out from the Peng Shuai affair. China return
In April, the WTA said it would end its 16-month boycott of the country introduced over concerns for the safety of Peng.
The former doubles world number one has not been seen outside China since first making, and then withdrawing, accusations of sexual assault against a high-ranking official. Earlier in May, the ATP announced that the lucrative Shanghai Masters will return to the schedule after three consecutive years of Covid cancellations.
The tournament’s prize-money pool will exceed $10 million, making it the richest sports event in Asia. The event is the last of four ATP Tour events in China scheduled this year.