China's aces braced for Wimbledon test

2023-06-30 09:38:35China Daily Editor : Li Yan ECNS App Download

From left: Zhang Zhizhen, Wu Yibing, Zheng Qinwen and Wang Xiyu will fly the flag for China at Wimbledon. All four have steadily climbed the rankings this year but the challenge of adapting to grass could stunt that momentum at the All England Club. (CHINA DAILY)

Grass courts of SW19 again look set to pose major challenge to Chinese contingent despite notable breakthroughs this year

Despite a highly encouraging 2023 on the ATP and WTA circuits for Chinese players, recent setbacks on grass are keeping their expectations in check at Wimbledon, which begins on Monday.

Trying to improve and adapt as quickly as possible, Chinese players still got caught out by professional tennis' abrupt transition from clay to grass, with a string of early exits in Wimbledon tuneup tournaments underlining their lack of finesse on the surface.

Touted as China's next-gen leaders, the star duo of Wu Yibing and Zheng Qinwen both slumped to back-to-back opening-round losses, first in Germany last week and then at Eastbourne, England on Monday, to leave their Wimbledon prospects looking decidedly shaky.

Also on Monday, young hopefuls Buyunchaokete and Shang Juncheng lost in men's first-round qualifiers, missing out on their chance to make main-draw debuts at the All England Club.

Still, at the time of writing, a record seven players from the Chinese mainland had secured Wimbledon main-draw spots. Yuan Yue and Bai Zhuoxuan, who were due to play in the women's singles final qualifying round on Thursday, could add to that figure.

The increasing number of Chinese players on the ATP and WTA circuits has raised expectations that the country could add to the two Grand Slam titles won by Li Na, who retired in 2014.

However, there remains a significant gap between China's current crop of players and the world's best — especially in all-around adaptability and consistency on different surfaces.

"The game on grass demands more from a player's movement. You have to play more aggressively and stay mentally strong. I definitely have a lot of catching up to do on grass," Wu said after losing to Russian world No 7 Andrey Rublev in three sets in the first round of an ATP 500 tournament in Halle, Germany on Wednesday.

As the youngest Chinese man ranked within the top 200, 18-year-old Shang admitted he is also struggling to find his rhythm on the slick green courts of Europe.

"I still find it hard to get used to the grass at Wimbledon," said Shang, who won the opening set in his defeat to the qualifying event's No 1 seed, Matteo Arnaldi, on Monday at Roehampton, London.

Compared to their elite counterparts based in Europe, where the change between surfaces has been a part of their life on the tour, Chinese aces — all developed on hard courts since their junior days — traditionally struggle during the spring and early summer stretch of the season, when the game segues from the grueling long rallies on clay to the short, sharp points on grass.

"I think we just need to stay healthy and gain more experience," said Shang, who in January became the first Chinese mainland player to win in the first round of the Australian Open men's main draw.

All-rounder Zhang

As the leading Chinese man in the rankings, world No 54 Zhang Zhizhen enjoyed a deep run in Eastbourne to boost his confidence ahead of his second main-draw appearance at Wimbledon next week.

Zhang, who became the first Chinese mainlander in the Open era to make Wimbledon's main draw in 2021, reached the quarterfinals in Eastbourne by prevailing in three sets against American Maxime Cressy on Wednesday. He was due to next take on Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina on Thursday evening.

The inspiring victory saw Zhang become the only Chinese man to reach at least the quarterfinals on all three surfaces on the ATP Tour. On hard courts, he progressed to that stage at 250-level events in Shenzhen in 2017 and Naples, Italy last year, and on clay at a 1000 tournament in Madrid last month.

Resilience and experience have helped him develop a versatility that is rare to see from a Chinese player.

"I think I've been more conditioned to accept and get used to the fact that I start slow and fall behind in many matches," said Zhang, who became the first Chinese man to crack the top 100 following his quarterfinal run in Naples in October.

"After experiencing many setbacks and fighting back from behind, I've learned to never give up, no matter what the situation I'm facing in a match, and always focus on the next point to try to hang in there as long as I can," said the 26-year-old Shanghai native. "Usually, the perseverance pays off."

Zhang is the only male Chinese tennis player to have settled in Europe. Since 2021, he has been based at a training facility in Croatia managed by former pro Ivan Ljubicic. Zhang credits his commitment to living and practicing away from home as a major reason for his recent breakthroughs.

Only by surrounding themselves with the best on the tour — on and off the court — can the Chinese men enjoy consistent success on the ATP Tour, reckons Ljubicic.

"You need to have that individual experience like Zhizhen had coming to Europe a lot and pushed him to gain the international experience," said Ljubicic, a former world No 3 who has been serving as Zhang's international agent since 2016.

"The thing is that you have to feel comfortable traveling around the world, but this is the most difficult part — for any player, no matter where they are from," added the 44-year-old, who used to coach Swiss great Roger Federer.

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