China's Zhang Zhizhen makes history reaching second round at French Open
Zhang Zhizhen has made history.
For the first time in the Open era, a man from Chinese mainland has secured a place in the second round of men's singles at the red dirt Grand Slam. Zhang, ranked as the world's No. 71, was leading 6-1, 4-1 when his Serbian opponent, Dusan Lajovic, was forced to retire due to an injury at the French Open.
Amid waving Chinese flags on Court 5 in Roland Garros, Zhang started the match strong, breaking Lajovic four times to sweep the first set.
"I performed well today, I kept my cool at crucial moments and made few unforced errors," said Zhang, reflecting on his victory. Prior to this, he had lost all his previous three Grand Slam first-round matches in five-set battles.
Zhang, aged 27, then broke in the fourth game and held his own serve to surge to a 4-1 lead in the second set, after which Lajovic was unable to continue playing.
"I didn't envision my first Grand Slam main draw win to be like this, but such is life. You never know what will happen, but you have to be ready," said Zhang, who had previously made breakthroughs earlier this month in Madrid by becoming the first Chinese mainland player to reach the ATP 1000 Masters quarterfinals.
"We have so many people eagerly waiting for our first win. One step at a time, and then we can accumulate many wins," added Zhang.
Next up for Zhang will be Argentine qualifier Thiago Agustin Tirante, who defeated Dutch 25th seed Botic van de Zandschulp to advance.
Born in Shanghai, Zhang was one of three men's singles players from China participating in the clay-court major this year. Earlier on Monday, Shang Juncheng, the youngest of the trio, was a set away from claiming his first win before succumbing to a challenging five-set defeat to Peru's Juan Pablo Varillas.
The 18-year-old, who came through qualifying in Paris, lost his first-round match 4-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 in a marathon that lasted three hours and 22 minutes.
"After the second set, my physical condition declined slightly because I haven't been training much recently," confessed Shang, who revealed he had recently been infected with mononucleosis.
"I start feeling exhausted after playing for only 10 minutes. It's been affecting me a lot recently, even disrupting my sleep. So, I am already very content just to be here," Shang added.
Shang seemed poised to progress further when he showed dominance in the second set, breaking twice in the fourth and eighth games to take a two-set lead.
But Varillas, ranked 94th, staged a robust comeback while Shang grappled with a left wrist injury that forced him to call for a medical timeout in the fifth set.
The world's No. 200 failed to earn a single break in the remaining three sets, only to see his opponent turn the tide and clinch his first Grand Slam win.
Varillas will next face Spanish veteran Roberto Bautista Agut, the 19th seed, after Agut dispatched another Chinese player, Wu Yibing, 7-6(4), 6-1, 6-1.
"It was my first year competing in ATP events on clay. Overall, it wasn't bad. At least I managed to win some matches," said Wu, who reached the quarterfinals in Geneva the week prior to the French Open.
The 23-year-old, arriving in Paris as the highest-ranking Chinese men's player at No. 54, also had breakthroughs when he became the first male player from Chinese mainland to claim a Grand Slam main draw win in the Open era at last year's US Open.
Another significant moment came in February, when Wu became the first Chinese male player to win an ATP Tour title, defeating John Isner in the final of the Dallas Open.
The 54th-ranked Chinese player will team up with Argentina's Pedro Cachin to compete in the men's doubles.