NEW YORK—The success of Chinese women in recent years often raised the question: What about the Chinese men? How come the ATP tour doesn’t have three, four, or five Chinese players who regularly appear in the main draw at the majors?
The topic is a little too broad to broach here, but I can tell you that Chinese men are likely to be a presence soon, even if its two best players, Ze Zhang and Di Wu, are currently both outside the Top 150 (Nos. 182 and 271, respectively). But even if the men are unlikely to knock Li Na off the front pages of China's newspapers, progress is definitely being made.
Both Ze and Di were assigned 11 a.m. matches at the U.S. Open qualifying tournament this year, so I went out to take a look this morning. When I arrived at Court 12, Di was already up a break on Josselin Ouanna of France, a 6’4” specimen whose talent still must be described as “raw,” even though the clock is ticking on the 27-year-old’s career.
By contrast, Di is just 21, but he’s handicapped by his stature. He’s just 5’8” and weighs about as much as one of Ouanna’s thighs. Big men are inexorably taking over tennis, even if select little guys have persistently popped up to make life difficult for the specimens. So Di has his work cut out.
Craig Kardon, a former coach of Martina Navratilova and Shahar Peer (among others) and current mentor of Ze, calls Di “a poor man’s Michael Chang”—and don’t mistake that for an insult. Stroke production-wise, Di is a little Mats Wilander-ish: A smooth player with beautifully grooved strokes.
Despite his short stature, Di’s got decent pop on his serve and he already seems to know how to compete. A few weeks ago, he upset his countryman Ze in the men’s singles final of China’s National Games.
Today—another torrid, humid one in Queens—Di won the first set with ease, and he broke Ouanna for a 2-0 lead in the second set. At that point, a British coach paused for a moment behind me and crisply said to the protégé trailing him: “That’s Ouanna. Big serve. Big forehand. No backhand—plays slice a lot. Inconsistent.”
I can’t do any better than that, so let’s cut to the chase: Di won easily, 6-4, 6-1. By then, I’d traveled the distance of a decent topspin lob to Court 15, where Ze was playing. He’d already lost the first set when I slid along the bench to sit alongside Kardon, whom I’ve known for a long time. Ze had lost the first set, 6-3, but was leading Austria’s Martin Fischer in the second set, 3-1. “The first set was a disaster,” Kardon whispered. “He was down love-four before he even woke up.”
A moment later, Kardon called out, “Come on, George. Focus!” How “Zhang” morphed into “George” is beyond me, but for what it’s worth, Kardon later explained that, as a matter of fact, his official nickname is “Big George.”
Unlike Di, Big George is prime meat on the hoof, 6’2” with smoothly muscled legs and broad shoulders capable of generating excellent racquet-head speed and a vicious kick serve. Like every Chinese player I’ve watched, his ground-strokes are a model of discipline; there’s nothing exaggerated about them, which helps explain why he, like the more accomplished Li, can really brush the net and skim the lines with deadly, flat lasers. Ze used those aggressive shots to upset Richard Gasquet in the China Open last October, after which Gasquet said: “He’s a talented player, he’s aggressive and fast.”
Not on this day, though. Kardon put the slow start by Big George down to lack of match play. Kardon and Ze had arrived from China at around midnight on Saturday, which gave the 23-year-old exactly two days of practice before his match. Further, I was surprised to hear that Ze’s preparation for the qualifying tournament consisted of stowing his racquets in the closet and taking two weeks off.
There’s a reason for all that. The National Games, a quadrennial event in which the emphasis is on competition between the various provinces, is enormously important to the Chinese—more important, even, than any international “Open.” (The Chinese actually moved the tennis portion of the Games to the end of July to avoid a conflict with the U.S. Open, a sign of their growing global awareness.) Despite that loss to Di in the singles final, Ze led Jiangsu province the overall team win, so he was a tired—and happy—man by the end of the competition.
“He’s easily Top 100,” Kardon said of his future, as we watched Ze rally to win the second set. “But he needs to play matches. He’s only played five main tour events.”
Di came over to say hello as Ze wrapped up the second set. He was with his coach, Frenchman David Moreau, along with a promising Chinese junior girl, Zhou Yi Miao, and her own coach, Pablo Eguiguren—an Argentinian who spent most of his life in Australia. These coaches are pioneers, outliers in the coaching fraternity who have undertaken the great ex-pat adventure and challenge of immersing themselves in a culture that is nothing like any they have known, hoping to help lead China to glory on the international stage.
Yi Miao (“Mee-ow,” like a cat does, Eguiguren advised me) was wearing ear buds and multi-colored Crocs with some sort of novelty figurine attached to one. She has a broad, friendly face and fairly beamed as she recounted her success in the National Games. She won bronze in singles and also took a silver in mixed doubles (with Di), and a silver in what was the overall group win for the women of Shanghai province.
At the time, we were waiting for Fischer to return from a bathroom break. He was gone quite a while, and Kardon became concerned when Ze just sat there, taking sips of water, staring into space. He called out, “George, get up and move.”
Ze looked at him and seemed to wink. But he remained seated. Yi Miao giggled and Kardon confessed, “He’s saying no.”
It was alright, though, because Ze is a hard worker. Besides, this tournament was a tough assignment from the get-go. I wondered if the success of Li had lit a fire under the men, but Kardon dismissed that idea. “That sense of urgency to be at a world level isn’t there yet. These kids are still so focused on their peer group. But it’s going to come, it has to, as they get better.”
Big George got up and strolled to the baseline as Fischer returned. He hopped around a little, a concession to his coach. Ze looked good early in the third set, crafting the first break to lead 3-2. But he quickly fell behind and faced a break point in the next game, and Kardon grumbled, “This kid is killing me. I’ve got acid dripping from my stomach.”
It only got worse, meaning more stress for a coach broiling under a hot sun, watching a protégé whom he knows has world-class talent. Fischer broke back for 3-all, and in the ensuing games both men had break opportunities. Fischer even had two match points in the 10th game, with Ze serving at 4-5. But Ze rained down two Karlovician serves and went on to hold.
That revival gave Ze a jolt of much-needed energy, but Fischer also had found new life. They skillfully blasted their way to a tiebreaker, which began with a Fischer ace and a Ze double fault, followed by a botched smash by Ze. That mental lapse—a feeling of relief, having gotten into the tiebreaker?—cost Ze the match, 3-6 6-3, 7-6 (1).
As Kardon said, Ze needs more experience. Today he got some—as did Di, who took a nice step toward that elusive goal of cracking the Top 100.