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Feature: China's Tennis Awakening

China's Tennis Awakening
October 3, 2023

Zhang Zhizhen, China's No.1 men's player, has long held an appreciation for the elite tennis showcased at Qi Zhong Tennis Center.  

Born and raised in Shanghai, the 26-year-old can fondly recall when the state-of-the-art venue was the setting for the Tennis Masters Cup (now known as the ATP Finals) for the four-year period between 2005 and 2008.  

After the Rolex Shanghai Masters was launched in his home city from 2009, Zhang's idol Roger Federer, was among the superstar players to lift the trophy.

As Zhang prepares to contest the main draw of the tournament for the second time in his career, a journey from being a fan at the tournament to one of its biggest stars is complete. 

"It gives me a good chance to play center court again," said Zhang, who is delighted to see the tournament return to Shanghai in 2023. "I'm also happy to play after four years, with good results."

Those promising results - including a five-set win over world No.5 Casper Ruud in the second round of the recent US Open - ensure that the world No.60 Zhang arrives at his home tournament with enormous star power.

As fans clamour for autographs after every practice session, Zhang can also see his super-sized image adorning billboards. 

"I was pretty surprised (with) the photo on the milk shop," laughed Zhang, who also features prominently on Rolex Shanghai Masters promotions throughout the city. 

"Everyone saw me and was like 'man, you're everywhere!'"   

The sentiment is all positive for Zhang, who returned to his home city after claiming the men's singles gold medal at the Asian Games in Hangzhou last weekend. 

Enjoying a career-best season, he peaked at world No.52 in the rankings in July. 

A quarterfinal appearance at the ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Madrid is among the highlights of Zhang's year. 

As he prepares to meet veteran Frenchman Richard Gasquet in the first round, Zhang is thrilled to target another career breakthrough in his home city with such strong support.

"I'm happy to be like this," he smiled of his time in the spotlight. "(For) one week, it's fine."

The same is true for Zhang's younger countrymen, Shang Juncheng, who is preparing for his Rolex Shanghai Masters debut.

The Beijing-born left-hander has made huge steps in the 2023 season, starting with a successful qualifying campaign at the Australian Open. 

The 18-year-old subsequently defeated Germany's Oscar Otte to become the first Chinese player to win an Australian Open main-draw match in the Open era. 

It means Shang - fondly known to many as "Jerry" - is now firmly in the professional tennis spotlight, especially when he competes at home. 

"I mean, the fans in China are great. It's actually the first China swing for me," Shang said, ahead of his first-round match against Japan's Yosuke Watanuki.

"(I was) a little bit nervous in the beginning but obviously it's great support and more of a push for me to keep going forward, other than some negative pressure. So, I'm glad that (the fans) can support me during the matches, also off the court."

Ranked 160, Shang received a coveted wild card into the main draw and is especially pleased with the opportunity to compete at an event that has held his attention since he first took up tennis at age five. 

"It's an amazing event. The crowd is amazing, and I mean, everything about this tournament is unique and especially it's in China, it's in Shanghai," he said. "I'm just super excited to be here and hopefully I can play some good tennis."

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