Zhang Zhizhen’s Unlikely Journey To Stardom | ATP Tour
In March 2011, 14-year-old Zhang Zhizhen performed a junior match in Haikou, China in opposition to 15-year-old Cameron Norrie. The consequence was lopsided: Norrie eased previous Zhang 6-2, 6-0. The lefty standout loved a distinguished junior profession, dominated school tennis for Texas Christian College and surged into the Prime 10 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.
The trail to stardom was not as direct for Zhang, who by no means climbed greater than World No. 166 as a junior. But it surely was nearly becoming that simply greater than 12 years after that match in China, Zhang earned the most important win of his skilled profession in opposition to Norrie, eliminating the Briton 2-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(2) on Monday on the Mutua Madrid Open to turn out to be the primary participant from his nation to succeed in the fourth spherical of an ATP Masters 1000 occasion.
“Earlier than the match I did not even assume I used to be going to be right here within the second week of Madrid,” Zhang stated after that match. “Now I made it!”
The 26-year-old’s journey on the Caja Magica didn’t cease there. Zhang then received his third consecutive final-set tie-break on Tuesday when he upset eighth seed Taylor Fritz for a spot within the quarter-finals. A win in opposition to Aslan Karatsev on Thursday will see him turn out to be the primary Chinese language participant in historical past to crack the world’s Prime 50.
It’s a large accomplishment for a participant who was by no means anticipated to be right here. Zhang’s shut buddy Wu Yibing, the highest-ranked Chinese language man in historical past, was junior World No. 1, as was 18-year-old countryman Shang Juncheng. They have been way more extremely touted than Zhang, in response to Chinese language tennis reporter Zhang Bendou.
“What makes Zhizhen distinctive and completely different is first, he was by no means a prodigy, not to mention junior World No. 1 like Wu and Shang,” he stated. “He by no means performed a junior Grand Slam, he did not have a excessive junior rating. Nevertheless, he isn’t a small-town boy both. He comes from Shanghai. His father is a well-known soccer star.”
Zhang’s father is Zhang WeiHua, who was a defender for Shanghai ShenHua. When he was younger, his father gave him three choices: examine, swim or play tennis. Finding out was too boring and his swimming coach was too powerful. Zhang’s life in tennis started by means of elimination.
As Wu Di, probably the greatest Chinese language male tennis gamers in historical past stated, Zhang was by no means the most effective singles competitor in his age group. If something, he loved extra success on the doubles courtroom.
Zhang Zhizhen and Wu Di in Zhuhai in 2019. Photograph: ATP Tour
However having secured his first ATP Tour most important draw singles win in 2015 simply earlier than his nineteenth birthday, there has all the time been potential in Zhang’s recreation.
“He has for certain the photographs for Prime 50 or Prime 30. However typically he didn’t know use [them],” Wu stated. “He is a wise man, however too sensible. Good serve, forehand and every little thing is okay, however you must adapt.”
Zhang’s first a number of years on Tour have been stuffed with inconsistency, which prevented him from making himself a continuing presence on the high stage.
“He thinks he can beat anyone. However each day is completely different. Generally [you] do, typically [you] do not. However he solely needs it to be a pleasant day,” Wu stated. “[It is not nice] each day. As we speak’s wet. Tomorrow is sunny. However you must compete quietly.”
The Chinese language star slowly made progress. He cracked the world’s Prime 200 in 2019 behind his first two ATP Challenger Tour titles. Two years later, Zhang certified for Wimbledon, turning into the primary Chinese language man to compete in the primary draw on the match within the Open Period. Final yr he completed the identical feat on the US Open (as did Wu Yibing).
His consistency improved and with it got here a surge up the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Final October Zhang grew to become the primary Chinese language participant to interrupt into the world’s Prime 100, a major second in response to Zhang Bendou.
“Many Chinese language are very pleased with what our nation has achieved prior to now 30 years. Nevertheless, if you happen to speak about sports activities, males’s tennis appeared prefer it was our ‘black gap’ eternally,” he stated. “We have achieved so many nice issues, however we could not even produce one ATP Prime 100 participant for such a very long time, which is absolutely unthinkable.
“For ZZZ lastly conquering that objective, it was a giant success and aid as nicely for Chinese language folks, particularly sports activities followers right here, that sure, Zhizhen and Yibing have each confirmed that Chinese language males can even do it.”
Wu Yibing, Shang Juncheng and Zhang Zhizhen this yr in Melbourne, the place all of them performed in the primary draw. Photograph: ATP Tour
The Chinese language participant has skilled in numerous areas all through the world in an try to enhance his recreation. He has additionally remained near his Shanghai staff. Earlier this yr, Wu Di spent a number of weeks touring with him to assist as wanted.
“Mentally he is robust as a result of in any other case one other Chinese language man can not keep out of China for years,” Wu stated. “He can.”
As Zhang has proven in Madrid, he has the sport to compete with among the greatest gamers on this planet. It will be tough to beat former Nitto ATP Finals rivals and Masters 1000 champions like Norrie and Fritz in any other case.
“For a few years, folks right here have been all the time speaking about if Asian males will not be robust sufficient to compete with Western gamers,” Zhang Bendou stated. “Even when they may, they’re often injury-prone. ZZZ is completely different with Wu and Shang on this sense. He’s tall and powerful and he’s all about energy. Simply have a look at how large his forehand and serve might be in Madrid.”
Zhang will attempt to use these belongings once more within the quarter-finals in opposition to big-hitting Aslan Karatsev, whom he admitted defeated him 6-0 in a apply set.
“I’ll do my greatest,” Zhang stated after his final match. “Right here everybody is a superb participant, large participant. All of them have some excellent outcomes. [I will] attempt to do the most effective what I can do.”
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