Chinese men have been lighting up the ATP Challenger Tour lately, none more so than Zhang Zhizhen, who recently won his third Challenger title. After back-to-back second places in Lüdenscheid, Germany and Trieste, Italy, it was a trip to Cordenons, Italy where Zhang clinched his first Challenger title of the season.
“My feelings after the win were pretty happy because it was the third time this year that I reached a final and I lost the last two. In Lüdenscheid it was difficult to win the match, but in Trieste it was pretty close in three sets. There was a chance, but I didn’t catch it.
“This time (Cordenons), after I lost the first set, I was like, ‘Oh, shoot again, shoot again (I’m going to lose), I don’t want it to be like that.’ When I won the last point, I was really excited,” he said.
Last week, Zhang and Shang Juncheng became the first Chinese duo to win Challenger titles in the same week (Shang won in Lexington, Kentucky).
Three weeks ago, Zhang narrowly missed making history with compatriot Wu Yibing, who was victorious in Indianapolis that same week when the 25-year-old fell in the Trieste final. Zhang made sure he never missed the historic moment a second time.
“It’s history for us, but I missed the chance earlier, the same week Wu Yibing won in Indianapolis,” Zhang said. “This time I was like, ‘I don’t want to miss this chance!'”
China doesn’t have a player to break into the top 100 of the Pepperstone ATP rankings yet, but Zhang believes he could be the one to change that. In 2020, the Shanghai native rose to rank 136, which remains the highest ranking achieved by a male Chinese player. The world No. 161 is now aiming for a breakthrough in the top 100 and hopes he will be the man who will make Chinese tennis history.
But he’s not the only Chinese player eyeing the top 100. Zhang is in a race with Wu, whom he frequently messages via WeChat, to reach the milestone. Wu, 22, has three Challenger titles this season and currently ranks No. 173 in the world, just 12 places behind Zhang.
“I think it’s me and not Wu Yibing (who will do it first),” he joked. “I hope he can do it too (top 100). We want to be quick to break that goal and it seems like we’re in a very good position. We talk about everything… but we don’t have to talk about (the ranking) because we both know it’s our goal.”
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Zhang believes we’ll only see more Chinese men climb the rankings, including recent Lexington Challenger champion 17-year-old Shang. After Zhang and Shang were crowned champions last week, “Jerry” first turned to the Shanghai native to congratulate him.
“Jerry texted me first and said ‘Congratulations!’ and then I also said ‘Congratulations!’ and that he is doing very well,” Zhang said. “I was at the hotel and just sat down for dinner. (After) pizza and beer I took a picture and sent it to him. Then he sent me back a picture of water in a restaurant with his family and his trainer.”
Coached by Luke Kutanjacthe number 161 in the world will travel to Poland for the Koserki open before flying to the United States where he entered the United States US Open to qualify. Should he advance, Zhang will be the first Chinese to compete US Open Main draw in the Open Era. Zhang has good memories of reaching the Wimbledon peloton last season and was the first Chinese to qualify Wimbledon in the open age.
“That was something very special for me. Last season I played on grass for the first time and then I made it through qualifying Wimbledon, I did not expect that. There are many memories there.”
And Zhang hopes many more will follow.