Displaying resilience and aggression, Zhang Zhizhen made Chinese tennis history on Tuesday when he became the nation's first men's player to reach the quarterfinals of a top ATP Tour event with an upset victory in Madrid.
Entering the Madrid Open as world No 99, Zhang continued defying the odds in the Spanish capital when he sensationally defeated world No 10 Taylor Fritz of the United States, 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(8), in the fourth round.
It was the first time Zhang had secured a quarterfinal berth at an ATP Masters 1000 tournament and marked another milestone in his breakout season.
Cheered on by a vocal group of Chinese fans at the Arantxa Sanchez Stadium, Zhang saved three match points in the third set tiebreaker to prevail in nearly two-and-a-half hours.
Zhang's giant-killing efforts late in matches has been a hallmark of his fairy-tale run in Madrid. It was the third consecutive time he has triumphed in a final set tiebreaker and his first victory against a top-10 opponent.
He claimed the scalps of Canada's Denis Shapovalov (No 27) in the second round and Great Britain's Cameron Norrie (No 13) in the third round, fighting back from a set down in both matches.
"Before (this week) I was always losing tiebreakers in many big, important matches. … If you play more and more, you cannot lose all the time," the 26-year-old Shanghai native said of his tiebreaker performances in Madrid.
Zhang said that before the match, he knew he was facing a tough player. "There is no weakness, so I just tried to do what I can do. After losing the first set, (I was) thinking about trying to play a little bit closer match," he said, adding that in the end he knew he could win.
Zhang's advance in Madrid triggered rousing reactions on social media at home, with fans marveling at yet another breakthrough for Chinese men's tennis this year.
Compatriot Wu Yibing, the world No 57, won the country's first ATP Tour men's singles title in Dallas, Texas, in February. In March, Wu followed it up with a hard-fought victory against Spain's Jaume Munar in the first round of the Indian Wells Open in California. The triumph was Wu's first main-draw victory at an overseas ATP Masters 1000 tournament and the first win by a Chinese man at that level on foreign soil.
Led by the emerging duo, who have both climbed the world rankings this year, more Chinese young guns, including teen prodigy Shang Juncheng and rising star Bu Yunchaokete, are making their presence felt on the men's pro tour.
China's success in tennis has traditionally come from its women's players.
Highlighted by retired legend Li Na's two Grand Slam titles, the 2011 French Open and the 2014 Australian Open, Chinese women have enjoyed higher-profile success than their male counterparts since the early 2010s.
Zhang, who became the first Chinese man to enter the world's top 100 in October, said the country's male players were achieving many firsts, because their success had started later. "So we still have a lot of room to create a lot of things," he said.
Zhang faces Russian power-hitter Aslan Karatsev on Thursday and has the potential to reach the top 50 should he defeat the former world No 14.
He has been Karatsev's hitting partner in Madrid and is well aware of the Russian's game.
"I'll tell you a secret — we had a practice (set), I lost 6-0 against Karatsev. So again, I'll do my best," said Zhang.
"Ranking is not what I should care about. I should focus more on the match, and how I have to play it."