In March 2011, 14-year-old Zhang Zhizhen played a junior tournament in Haikou, China against 15-year-old Cameron Norrie. The result was lopsided: Norrie eased past Zhang 6-2, 6-0. The lefty standout enjoyed a distinguished junior career, dominated college tennis for Texas Christian University and surged into the Top 10 of the Pepperstone ATP Rankings.

The path to stardom was not as direct for Zhang, who never climbed higher than World No. 166 as a junior. But it was almost fitting that just more than 12 years after that match in China, Zhang earned the biggest win of his professional career against Norrie, eliminating the Briton 2-6, 7-6(2), 7-6(2) on Monday at the Mutua Madrid Open to become the first player from his country to reach the fourth round of an ATP Masters 1000 event.

“Before the match I didn’t even think I was going to be here in the second week of Madrid,” Zhang said after that match. “Now I made it!”


The 26-year-old’s journey at the Caja Magica did not stop there. Zhang then won his third consecutive final-set tie-break on Tuesday when he upset eighth seed Taylor Fritz for a place in the quarter-finals. A win against Aslan Karatsev on Thursday will see him become the first Chinese player in history to crack the world’s Top 50.

It is a massive accomplishment for a player who was never expected to be here. Zhang’s close friend Wu Yibing, the highest-ranked Chinese man in history, was junior World No. 1, as was 18-year-old countryman Shang Juncheng. They were much more highly touted than Zhang, according to Chinese tennis reporter Zhang Bendou.

“What makes Zhizhen unique and different is first, he was never a prodigy, let alone junior World No. 1 like Wu and Shang,” he said. “He never played a junior Grand Slam, he didn’t have a high junior ranking. However, he is not a small-town boy either. He comes from Shanghai. His father is a famous soccer star.”

Zhang’s father is Zhang WeiHua, who was a defender for Shanghai ShenHua. When he was young, his father gave him three options: study, swim or play tennis. Studying was too boring and his swimming coach was too tough. Zhang’s life in tennis began by process of elimination.

As Wu Di, one of the best Chinese male tennis players in history said, Zhang was never the best singles competitor in his age group. If anything, he enjoyed more success on the doubles court.

Zhang Zhizhen and Wu Di in Zhuhai in 2019. Photo: ATP Tour
But having secured his first ATP Tour main draw singles win in 2015 just before his 19th birthday, there has always been potential in Zhang’s game.

“He has for sure the shots for Top 50 or Top 30. But sometimes he did not know how to use [them],” Wu said. “He’s a smart guy, but too smart. Good serve, forehand and everything is okay, but you have to adapt.”

Zhang’s first several years on Tour were filled with inconsistency, which prevented him from making himself a constant presence at the top level.

“He thinks he can beat anybody. But every day is different. Sometimes [you] do, sometimes [you] don’t. But he only wants it to be a nice day,” Wu said. “[It is not nice] every day. Today’s rainy. Tomorrow is sunny. But you have to compete quietly.”

The Chinese star slowly made progress. He cracked the world’s Top 200 in 2019 behind his first two ATP Challenger Tour titles. Two years later, Zhang qualified for Wimbledon, becoming the first Chinese man to compete in the main draw at the tournament in the Open Era. Last year he accomplished the same feat at the US Open (as did Wu Yibing).

His consistency improved and with it came a surge up the Pepperstone ATP Rankings. Last October Zhang became the first Chinese player to break into the world’s Top 100, a significant moment according to Zhang Bendou.

“Many Chinese are very proud of what our country has achieved in the past 30 years. However, if you talk about sports, men’s tennis seemed like it was our ‘black hole’ forever,” he said. “We’ve achieved so many great things, but we couldn’t even produce one ATP Top 100 player for such a long time, which is really unthinkable.

“For ZZZ finally conquering that goal, it was a big success and relief as well for Chinese people, especially sports fans here, that yes, Zhizhen and Yibing have both proven that Chinese men can also do it.”

Wu Yibing, Shang Juncheng and Zhang Zhizhen this year in Melbourne, where they all played in the main draw. Photo: ATP Tour
The Chinese player has trained in various locations throughout the world in an attempt to improve his game. He has also remained close to his Shanghai team. Earlier this year, Wu Di spent several weeks traveling with him to help as needed.

“Mentally he’s strong because otherwise another Chinese guy cannot stay out of China for years,” Wu said. “He can.”

As Zhang has shown in Madrid, he has the game to compete with some of the best players in the world. It would be difficult to beat former Nitto ATP Finals competitors and Masters 1000 champions like Norrie and Fritz otherwise.

“For many years, people here were always talking about if Asian men are not strong enough to compete with Western players,” Zhang Bendou said. “Even if they could, they are usually injury-prone. ZZZ is different with Wu and Shang in this sense. He is tall and strong and he is all about power. Just look at how big his forehand and serve could be in Madrid.”

Zhang will try to use those assets again in the quarter-finals against big-hitting Aslan Karatsev, whom he admitted defeated him 6-0 in a practice set.

“I’ll do my best,” Zhang said after his last match. “Here everyone is a great player, huge player. They all have some very good results. [I will] try to do the best what I can do.”

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