The Chinese men have made ripples at this year’s Shanghai Rolex Masters, Asia’s largest men’s professional tennis tournament. Familiar faces around the Qi Zhong Stadium include Chinese No.1 and 2, Zhang Ze and Wu Di as well as up-and-coming stars Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen.
With seven players in the Top 500, but none in the Top 100, Chinese prospects for the next men’s tennis superstar remains a much talked about topic, especially during this part of the year when the circuit travels to China.
“That’s the most commonly asked question, given that they’ve mastered every other racquet sport,” Michael Luevano, Tournament Director of the Shanghai Rolex Masters said. “But I can honestly say that there’s light upon the horizon.”
That “light” has shone more brightly this year, starting in February when China’s top male player, Zhang Ze won his first Challenger-level tournament in San Francisco. Another Chinese player made history last month at the US Open when 17-year-old Wu Yibing took the boys’ singles and doubles titles and with it, the world No.1 spot in the junior rankings.
More impressively, Wu Yibing immediately followed that up by winning the Road to Rolex Shanghai Masters Challenger.
“That was pretty amazing to step off a plane at 4 am and play your first match at 4 pm, win it, and win the whole tournament,” Mr. Luevano said. “Wu’s title earned him a wild card spot in the main draw of this week’s Shanghai Rolex Masters where the youngster lost to world No.45 Gilles Simon in a hard-fought match.
Afterwards, Simon was generous in his praise of the Hangzhou native, and said: “When he was in the zone, he hit fantastic winners, especially down-the-line. As he improves, he’ll be hard to beat.”
Wu also caught the eye of 19-time major champion Roger Federer. “For him to play in a tournament like this, starting to play against the best, is what I did in ’98, as well,” the Swiss said. “You get a feel for it, the week in, week out, playing against men, really. It’s a different energy you need, a different experience.”
The Shanghai Rolex Masters provides a rare opportunity for Chinese players to face the very top players in the game.
“It’s an invaluable experience,” Mr. Luevano said. “You’re watching these guys on television one day and the next week you’re in the locker room or hitting with them and you see them in a completely different light. It helps the confidence level in terms of realizing that they’re just normal guys. They realize ‘I belong here but I have to earn it’. They’re given these opportunities but they have to make the most of it.”
This year, it was Chinese No. 2, Wu Di, who made the most of his wild card by advancing into the second round with an upset of world No. 83 Jeremy Chardy, matching his best result last year where he beat then world No. 22 Pablo Cuevas.
“He has the game so I wasn’t surprised,” Mr. Luevano said. “Now, he’s just starting to believe that he can win. He came through in front of the Chinese crowd and it was great to see him grinning from ear to ear.”
The tandem of Wu Di and Wu Yibing also teamed up in the doubles to garner further attention.
Roger Federer, who partnered Zhang Ze in the doubles at the 2013 Shanghai Rolex Masters, also sees a bright future for Chinese men’s tennis.
“I think having big tournaments like Shanghai Rolex Masters here is hopefully going to strengthen the future of Asian tennis, really,” Federer added. “I have been a big believer in this continent. I mean, why wouldn’t you be with that many people in one place?”
Tennis pundits likewise feel it’s only a matter of time until a Chinese man makes a breakthrough, either by entering the world’s Top 100 or winning a tour-level event. If that happens, tennis in China will never be the same as has been seen with other sports.
“It’s been done with Yao Ming in basketball and Li Na in tennis on the women’s side,” Mr. Luevano said. “You would see a tennis explosion, the most people playing tennis anywhere in the world.”