Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen sat in the US Open players’ dining room during a rain delay on Friday, one of the biggest days of their careers. Wu, the 2017 US Open men’s singles champion, had just qualified for the main draw of the last major of the season on his first attempt. Zhang was waiting to return to court to attempt to do the same.
Yet instead of emphasizing the magnitude of the moment, the close friends had a phone on the table streaming an ATP Challenger Tour match between 17-year-old Chinese phenom Shang Juncheng and Australian veteran Jordan Thompson. Shang would win the match and later advance to the tournament finals.
Wu, Zhang and Shang form the future of men’s tennis in China. This future looks bright.
When the rain delay ended, Zhang headed to Court 7, confidently finished his victory to earn his place on the court, and raised his arms in celebration. In the stands was Wu, who re-enacted the celebration.
“I’m very happy that we both qualified because it’s quite difficult,” Zhang said. “I know he had injuries.”
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Wu, who was the world No. 1 junior, was invited to Monaco in the 2017 off-season to train with some of the best players in the world. But he did not immediately impose himself on the ATP circuit. The Chinese star reached what was then a career high of No. 298 in April 2019.
However, he did not compete from March 2019 to January 2022 due to several injuries including elbow, lower back, shoulder and wrist issues, with elbow surgery being the most serious of the bunch. Wu, however, refused to use the injuries as an excuse.
“I don’t really like talking about those injuries too. [much] detail because every player has injuries. I’m sure a lot of players play tournaments with pain in certain body parts. I’m not the only one,” Wu said. “Also, the mental toughness you need to get through the pain is part of the game.”
This year, however, both Wu and Zhang have shown what they are capable of. Wu rose from world number 1,869 in March to number 174, his career high. Zhang, who became the highest-ranked Chinese player in Pepperstone ATP ranking history (world No. 136) in February 2020, is just one spot behind that mark.
“I think we have a good competition between me and him and we are also very good friends. For me, I will encourage it. We are both pushing the levels of Chinese men’s tennis and we are still young. We have plenty of time to do that. I think we will reach the Top 100,” Wu said.[It will] not [be] easy, but I think it should be done, even a long time ago.
“I like how [Zhang] rooms. He’s a big server and he’s aggressive on the pitch. He likes to put pressure on opponents. I love how he plays. We are good friends, we encourage each other. I think we can do some history here.
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The pair have done it before. On Monday, they will become the first Chinese Open Era men to compete in the US Open main draw.
“For him it’s easy because he won the juniors here. [For] five years, he has not lost a match at the US Open! Zhang said laughing. “For me, I was surprised to have passed the qualifications because it is of course my first time here. I was playing pretty well on clay after grass. I did not expect to be able to pass here.
Wu knows what it takes to make a deep run at Flushing Meadows. But he doesn’t look too far. Instead, he focuses on the present moment. After missing almost three years, he knows how to appreciate the opportunity.
“I just want to enjoy the event, enjoy the tennis,” Wu said. “I think that’s my biggest change between me now and a few years ago. I like tennis more and I really like playing in front of people. Just to be happy.