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Wu Yibing, Zhang Zhizhen end China's 86-year French Open wait

Wu Yibing (left) and Zhang Zhizhen have been racking up an impressive series of “firsts”. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, AFP

PARIS – Twelve months ago, a despondent Wu Yibing was retiring with injury from a low-level clay-court tournament in Italy, earning a meagre €530 (S$769) for his troubles.

Fast-forward a year and he is his country’s highest-ranked male player at 59th in the world and about to spearhead a landmark assault at the French Open, where it has been 86 years since a Chinese man last played in the main draw.

Wu, 23, will not be alone when the season’s second Grand Slam gets under way on Sunday as Zhang Zhizhen, 26, is also guaranteed a spot.

“The excitement in China around the top Chinese male players is palpable now and there is strong media interest linked to the breakthrough of these players on tour,” ATP executive vice-president Alison Lee told AFP.

Kho Sin-Khie and Choy Wai-Chuen were the last men to represent China in the French capital back in 1937.

Long overshadowed by their female counterparts, Wu and Zhang have been racking up an impressive series of “firsts”.

Wu was the first Chinese man to make the third round of the US Open in 2022 where it took world No. 1 and defending champion Daniil Medvedev to stop him.

He took his new-found celebrity status with good humour.

“I’m a good-looking guy, I guess,” he replied when told he was the hottest topic on Chinese social media.

Earlier in 2023, he became the first Chinese player to win an ATP Tour title in Dallas.

Unlike the small change he pocketed at Francavilla al Mare in Italy this time in 2022, Wu is guaranteed at least €69,000 just by playing his first round at Roland Garros.

A US Open junior champion in 2017, Wu, the son of a boxer, was sidelined for the best part of three years from March 2019 to January 2022 with elbow, back, shoulder and wrist injuries. Covid lockdown deepened his gloom.

However, he rapidly made up for lost time. In March 2022, he was 1,869th in the world; in April 2023, he reached a career high of 55th.

Wu won his first ATP Tour-level match on clay in Rome last week and has already added two more in Geneva this week on his way to the quarter-finals, where he will take on German star Alexander Zverev.

The result of their match was not available at press time.

Zhang, meanwhile, is currently ranked at 70th and has yet to win a main draw match in three attempts at the Slams.

He tried and failed to make the French Open main draw in 2021 but was defeated in qualifying.

This spring, however, he went all the way to the quarter-finals on clay at the Madrid Masters from qualifying, defeating three top-30 players in a row in Denis Shapovalov, Cameron Norrie and Taylor Fritz.

That made him the first Chinese man to make the last eight of a Masters event.

Zhang was also the first Chinese man to break the top 100 in October 2022 after becoming the first from China to play in the Wimbledon main draw in the Open era.

Despite their landmark Paris appearances, Wu and Zhang are a long way from emulating female compatriot Li Na.

She was the first Chinese woman to capture a Slam at the 2011 French Open which she backed up by adding the 2014 Australian Open.

Zhang was only 14 when Li triumphed in the French capital and his memory of that historic moment is, by his own admission, vague.

“I’m very sorry, I really not watching too many matches from the girls,” he said in Madrid.