Zhang Zhizhen shoots to stardom after stellar clay-court swing

Despite losing to world No. 4 Casper Ruud in the third round of the French Open, China's Zhang Zhizhen has already had a dazzling clay-court run this season.
Zhang Zhizhen shoots to stardom after stellar clay-court swing

China's Zhang Zhizhen plays a backhand return to Norway's Casper Ruud during their men's singles match on day seven of the Roland-Garros Open tennis tournament at the Court Suzanne-Lenglen in Paris on June 3, 2023.

Despite losing to world No. 4 Casper Ruud in the third round of the French Open, China's Zhang Zhizhen has already had a dazzling clay-court run this season. The 26-year-old achieved a career-high ranking of 55th on the latest ATP ranking, released on Monday, surpassing Wu Yibing to become the top-ranked Chinese player.

Over the past month, Zhang has been dubbed a "history maker" due to his record-breaking performances on clay. He became the first Chinese player in the Open Era to reach the quarterfinals at an ATP1000 tournament and advanced to the third round at Roland Garros, a feat no Chinese man from the mainland had achieved before.

Although Zhang has stated on numerous occasions that he prefers hard or grass courts over clay, it is on the red dirt that he has experienced the most successful period of his career.

October 24, 2022, marked a significant milestone in Zhang's career. After fighting through the qualifying rounds and winning four consecutive matches, he reached the quarterfinals at the ATP250 event in Naples. With 57 points earned from this tournament, Zhang climbed to 97th in the world rankings, becoming the first male player from the Chinese mainland to crack the top 100 since the introduction of the ATP ranking system in 1973.

Entering the 2023 season, Zhang initially aimed to maintain his position within the top 100, as it would grant him entry into higher-level tournaments, including Masters and Grand Slam events. However, his performance at the beginning of the season was unsatisfactory as he struggled with consecutive eliminations in the qualifying rounds. It wasn't until the start of the clay-court season in April that his form began to improve.

"That period was indeed torturous for me, with consecutive losses and a dip in my form," Zhang recalled. "But somehow I managed to get through it. Sometimes, a couple of weeks of good performances are enough to overcome the low ebb and boost my morale. That's how it worked for me in Madrid."

The magic of the Caja Magica in Madrid seemed to have bestowed Zhang with its own enchantment. He triumphed over several opponents with much higher world rankings, including a top 10 victory over Taylor Fritz, reaching the quarterfinals.

Next came the French Open, where Zhang, Wu Yibing, and Shang Juncheng appeared together in the men's singles main draw. Once again, Zhang achieved the best result for a Chinese male player from mainland at Roland Garros in the Open Era.

For Zhang, his performances on clay over the past month were nothing short of "magical." Despite expressing a desire to quickly move on from the clay season, he continuously shone on this surface.

"Everything is unpredictable," Zhang said, emphasizing that he is "a player who can adapt to all surfaces."

Roland Garros, the "sanctuary" of clay, boasts over 20 courts, with Philippe-Chatrier, Suzanne-Lenglen, and Simonne-Mathieu being the most well-known. As an unseeded player, Zhang played his first two round matches on small outer courts. However, with his third-round clash against last year's runner-up Ruud, Zhang earned the opportunity to compete on Court Suzanne-Lenglen, which accommodates approximately 10,000 spectators.

"It is a great honor to play on the big court, especially at a Grand Slam. It is an incredible experience. We rarely have such opportunities unless our rankings improve in the future. Currently, it depends on our opponents' rankings to schedule the match on center court, so I will thoroughly enjoy it," Zhang expressed his excitement before the clash.

Stepping onto such a grand stage, Zhang showed no signs of nervousness. He made an early break and claimed a 6-4 win in the first set. Although he lost three consecutive sets afterward, ending his Roland Garros run against the Norwegian, Zhang's performances had already caught the attention of the audience. French photographers kept asking, "This Chinese guy is impressive. Why haven't we seen him before?"

With his ranking continuously improving and his deep runs in tournaments, Zhang has faced top players more frequently. Each encounter with the elite has not only given him experience but also boosted his confidence.

"This is my fourth time playing against a top 10 player. It started with my first match against Dominic Thiem in Beijing in 2019, then the second one against Andrey Rublev in 2022. I didn't have any chance in those two matches. Then came the match against Fritz in Madrid, and now against Ruud. I felt that if I played well, I had the ability to compete against them," Zhang explained.

In a post-match interview, Ruud admitted that Zhang made it very difficult for him during the match, stating that "in the beginning, I couldn't find any hole."

"I still want to play against top players. Although there are still many areas where I need to improve, my understanding will only increase by playing against them," Zhang believes the difference between himself and top players lies in the ability to make the "right choices" during matches.

"For example, whether to hit a straight shot, whether to step forward or backward at a certain moment. All of these come from accumulating experience through each match," he said.

Chinese men's tennis, a relatively silent force in the sport for a long time, has continuously surprised the tennis world over the past year. Zhang, Wu, and Shang have constantly pushed the boundaries of Chinese men's tennis on the tour and even at Grand Slam events.

Wu had an impressive run at last year's US Open, becoming the first male player from the Chinese mainland to win a Grand Slam singles match and reach the last 32 in the Open Era. He continued his strong performance by clinching the title at the Dallas tournament in February, becoming the first male player from the Chinese mainland to win an ATP Tour singles championship. The youngest of the three, 18-year-old Shang, also reached the second round at the Australian Open earlier this year.

Zhang welcomes the competition between them. "I'm the oldest one at the moment, but we have other Chinese guys," he said. "I don't feel any pressure from competing with them. I would like to see them go in front of me, which means we get better results for our country.

"I mean, I would be happy if everyone enters the top 100, the top 50. That's good news for us at least."

The Shanghai-born player, who started playing tennis at age four and cited Roger Federer as his idol while growing up, acknowledges the help he received from senior Chinese players like Wu Di and Zhang Shuai, which motivated him to reach his current level.

From last year's US Open to this year's French Open, Chinese male players have appeared on the main stage of Grand Slam tournaments for three consecutive times.

Is this the best time for Chinese men's tennis? "The best is yet to come," Zhang predicted.

"There are three of us now, maybe four in the future. I hope more and more Chinese players can participate in the main draw of Grand Slams," he concluded.

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