TENNIS

Wu Yibing ready to return to the fast lane | ATP tour

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Former world junior No. 1 Wu Yibing reached a career-high No. 174 in the Pepperstone ATP rankings this week behind his second straight ATP Challenger Tour title. But the 22-year-old Chinese is aiming for the Top 100, with his eye on one particular number.

“The highest-ranked Chinese player of all time is No. 136,” he said in an exclusive interview with ATPTour.com, alluding to Zhang Zhizhen. “I think I have a good chance to beat him this year. I’m going to trust myself and have a high level.

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It’s a lofty goal for the six-footer, who played exclusively on a domestic circuit in China in 2020-21 after recovering from elbow surgery. But Wu is already China’s No. 1, having overtaken Zhang earlier this month. In 2020, Wu had a piece of bone removed from his elbow. (β€œIt sounds terrifying, but I made it,” he says.)

Both Wu and Zhang, 25, are in the Top 200, with Shang Juncheng, 17, and Yunchaokete Bu, 20, representing China in the Top 400.

But Wu’s recent form on the Challenger Tour has put the spotlight on him.

He returned to ITF level in January but badly twisted his ankle in his first tournament in Cancun, an injury he compared to Alexander Zverev’s horrific incident at Roland Garros. Wu won his next event, an ITF event in April in Florida, and has since won three Challenger titles in the United States, including back-to-back trophies this month in Rome, Georgia and Indianapolis.

His four career Challenger titles make him the most decorated Chinese player in the history of the circuit.

In his Indianapolis triumph, he saved six match points to defeat American Aleksandar Kovacevic 6-7(10), 7-6(13) 6-3 in an epic final. He also had two Top 100 wins this season, beating Australian Jordan Thompson and German Peter Gojowczyk.

“These matches gave me a lot of confidence, especially the game against Jordan Thompson,” Wu said of their 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 win in Zagreb. β€œMostly being in one set and struggling in the second set and fighting through. It gave me confidence that I could compete with the top 100 players.

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After testing himself against international opposition, Wu feels like a more mature player than he was before his elbow injury. He is still as aggressive as ever, but no longer rushes in his attempts to generate energy.

While happy with his overall game, especially his improved return, Wu leans on his first-serve percentage and net skills as areas for improvement.

“In general, Chinese players, we work a lot on the baseline,” he explained. β€œWe miss shots like slicing, like volleys. So that’s something I miss in my junior practice time, which I look forward to improving.

Wu is also keen to improve his physical condition in order to participate in the ATP Tour.

“I think mentally I’m ready to overcome any injuries I may encounter in the near future,” he said. “My body isn’t strong enough like other players, so I’m ready to put in more effort in the gym and the stretching room. One of the important lessons I need to learn is how to prevent I’ve been talking to my physio a lot lately about this.

Fortunately, he has a team to help guide him – a rarity for Challenger-level players.

β€œI’m lucky to be Chinese. I get a lot of support from my federation and also from my agency,” he explained. β€œThey help me find these great coaches, physiotherapists and physical trainers. They are doing a great job so far this year.

β€œI’m not going to take all the credit myself. Tennis is a solitary sport. I don’t have many friends on the Tour – I missed a few years of those tournaments. My coaches and my physio have to keep me awake, make me want to play games and keep me in shape. All these little things make a team.

Wu Yibing
Wu at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Indianapolis. Photo credit: Larry Lawrence

Wu’s status as one of China’s top tennis prospects has also given him the opportunity to meet international sports superstars such as golfing great Tiger Woods and basketball legend Yao Ming, whom he nicknamed “The Great Wall of China”. He also met Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons when the Philadelphia 76ers visited Shanghai in 2018.

A big NBA fan, Wu enjoyed a nice side benefit from his time in the United States earlier this season in the playoffs. Due to jet lag, games are shown on morning television in China, which conflicts with Wu’s training schedule. In the United States, he was able to watch the playoffs during prime time.

“Here I can relax after a long day of training,” said Wu, who calls Kevin Durant his favorite player. “I can just relax on my bed and watch great games.”

Music is Wu’s other passion off the pitch, and he credited Taiwanese artist Jay Chou’s new songs with propelling him to his recent success.

“I’ll give him some credit for winning those tournaments, listening to his music,” Wu said with a laugh.

A celebrity in his own right, Wu also enjoys livestreaming on Chinese social media and speaking directly with his fans.

“I do it because I have free time and I want to talk to someone,” he shared. “Instead of playing video games, I choose to live stream and interact with all the Chinese fans. Maybe some junior players will take inspiration from it.

“Interacting with the fans brings a bit of light into my life on the Tour. I guess winning fans is never a bad thing.”

As he targets the ATP Tour, Wu can also draw on the experience of meeting and competing with many of the best players in the game. He was a hitting partner in the 2017 Nitto ATP Finals and took a set on Kei Nishikori as wildcard at the 2018 Rolex Shanghai Masters.

Thanks to his rapid rise up the Pepperstone ATP rankings, Wu has booked himself a return to the big stage in August, when he makes his senior debut in Grand Slam qualifying at the US Open – the site of his triumph in junior singles in 2017.

β€œI actually imagined it a lot in my head,” Wu said of returning to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. “Taking pictures there and checking to see if they put my name on the wall…the things a normal person would think of.

“But I don’t want to think too much about emotional things, because I’m going to New York to play tennis, not to be nostalgic for the good old days. I hope I can turn that emotion into positive energy to be useful for my matches.

“It will be a very special feeling to be back. I finished my junior career at the US Open and now my professional career could start a new chapter there. It kind of feels like fate. But I know that I still have to focus and bring out the best tennis on the court.”

– with reporting assistance from Michael Chen

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