One year ago, Wu Yibing retired from a minor clay court tournament in Italy due to injury, earning only 530 euros ($570) as a result. However, fast-forward to the present, and the 23-year-old Wu has become China’s highest-ranked male tennis player, currently sitting at number 59 in the world rankings. He is set to lead a historic Chinese assault at the French Open, which has not seen a Chinese male player in the main draw for 86 years. Wu will be joined by Zhang Zhizhen, who has also secured a spot in the tournament. Additionally, Shang Juncheng has a chance to make it three Chinese men in the tournament if he qualifies in the final round.
The ATP executive vice-president, Alison Lee, expressed the palpable excitement in China surrounding these top male players and the media interest generated by their breakthroughs on the tour. The last Chinese men to represent China in the French Open were Kho Sin-Khie and Choy Wai-Chuen in 1937, highlighting the long-standing dominance of Chinese female players in tennis. However, Wu and Zhang have been making significant strides and achieving notable milestones.
Wu became the first Chinese male player to reach the third round of the US Open in 2022, where he was ultimately stopped by world number one and defending champion Daniil Medvedev. Despite his success, Wu maintained a lighthearted attitude when acknowledging his popularity on Chinese social media, jokingly attributing it to his good looks. Earlier this year, he also became the first Chinese player to win an ATP Tour title in Dallas.
In contrast, Zhang, currently ranked 70th in the world, is still seeking his first main draw win in a Grand Slam after three attempts. However, he made a remarkable run to the quarter-finals at the Madrid Masters this spring, defeating three top 30 players along the way. This achievement marked the first time a Chinese man reached the quarter-finals of a Masters event. Zhang had previously broken into the top 100 in October 2022 and became the first Chinese male player to compete in the Wimbledon main draw in the Open era.
While Wu and Zhang’s appearances at the French Open are significant milestones, they are still far from reaching the level of success attained by their female compatriot Li Na. Li won two Grand Slam titles, including the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, making her the first Chinese woman to achieve such victories.
The breakthrough of Wu and Zhang comes at a crucial time, considering the challenges faced by Chinese tennis due to the pandemic and the fallout from the Peng Shuai incident. The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) recently ended its 16-month boycott of China, which was implemented due to concerns about the safety of Peng Shuai. Peng, a former doubles world number one, accused a high-ranking official of sexual assault but has not been seen outside China since. Furthermore, the ATP announced the return of the Shanghai Masters to the schedule after three consecutive years of cancellations due to COVID-19. With a prize money pool exceeding $10 million, the Shanghai Masters will be the richest sports event in Asia and concludes the four ATP Tour events scheduled in China this year.