Zhang savours history-making run

The race for Chinese men's No.1 will change hands again after Paris feats

Zhang Zhizhen, Roland-Garros 2023, second round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT
 - Dan Imhoff

The first man from his nation to reach the third round at Roland-Garros in the Open Era, Zhang Zhizhen would be perfectly content to see his compatriots rise above him.

That’s not to suggest the 26-year-old from Shanghai is suddenly short on motivation. It is more a selfless outlook if it means greater success for Chinese men’s tennis.

The chance to shun some of the enormous expectations from a nation desperate for men’s tennis to play catch-up invariably plays a part, too. And he couldn't hide his elation when told his run came with a windfall beyond a handy payday.

Regardless of whether Zhang finds a way past fourth seed Casper Ruud in the third round, he will assume the mantle as the new Chinese No.1, and could yet pass Wu Yibing’s career-best mark of world No.54 as the highest-ranked man from his country in history.

“We have been couple times already changing, I think like three times changing first and second,” Zhang said. “At the moment we have pretty much points to defend after Roland-Garros actually. From now after this week to US Open, we both have a lot of points to defend.

“Still, it's a good chance to go to top 50. Seems when we made top 100 and next goal is top 50, we had the goal. It is like this: 100, 50, maybe 30 or 20, that's depending on the person.

“Just trying to take the chance and to break this 50. Let's see if we can make it.”

Zhang Zhizhen, Roland-Garros, second round©Clément Mahoudeau/FFT

Illustrious footsteps

Zhang – who first picked up a racquet at age four and “just like everyone” cites Roger Federer as his idol growing up – had few troubles in the second round against rising Argentine Thiago Agustin Tirante for his deepest run at a major.

It equalled Wu’s feat at last year’s US Open, but was still a far cry from the exploits of 2011 Roland-Garros women's singles champion Li Na.

No Chinese man has cracked the third round in the Open Era but after a dash to his maiden Masters 1000 quarter-final in Madrid leading in – with wins over Taylor Fritz and Cameron Norrie – Zhang is not lacking belief.

“For me is not a pressure to be here,” Zhang said. “I mean, [I'm] here to try to show my best… show everything what I have and try to compete with those guys.

“That's the reason I'm here. It's nothing, [no] pressure for me.”

Jerry Shang, Roland-Garros 2023, qualifying third round©Rémy Chautard / FFT

More to follow

That healthy battle for Chinese bragging rights is by no means a two-horse race.

For the second straight major, three Chinese men have taken their place in the main draw, with left-handed qualifier Jerry Shang (pictured above) fast closing in on Wu and Zhang.

“That was truly amazing to get to play a main draw with two other guys that are like my brothers,” Shang said after the trio made history in Melbourne. “They're like an inspiration to Chinese tennis.

“Before we had great players on tour but unfortunately they weren't top 100 so with these two guys it's a confidence boost.”

The greater good

As the top-ranked Chinese man a year ago, before any of the three had broken into the top 300, Zhang praised how far each had come.

He welcomed the competition, too.

“I'm the oldest one at the moment, but we have other Chinese guys,” he said. "I don't feel any pressure for them. I would like for them to go in front of me, which means we got a better result in our country.

“I mean, I would be happy just everyone go through the top 100, go through the top 50. That's good news for us at least.”

Zhang Zhizhen, Roland-Garros 2023, second round© Clément Mahoudeau/FFT