People: Rising tennis star puts China on map

Wu Yibing with his US Open boys' singles trophy after defeating top seed Axel Geller of Argentina 6-4, 6-4 in the final this month.
Wu Yibing with his US Open boys' singles trophy after defeating top seed Axel Geller of Argentina 6-4, 6-4 in the final this month.ST PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

LONDON • The long-predicted march of Chinese men into the top echelons of tennis has been so slow to emerge that some observers have started asking when it will happen.

Teenager Wu Yibing is doing his best to put the debate back on the agenda, prompting talk that China might finally have unearthed a male player to fill the void left by former women's world No. 2 Li Na.

The 17-year-old won the junior singles and doubles at the US Open this month and reached another huge milestone by winning his first professional tournament, an ATP Challenger event in Shanghai.

Today, the world's top-ranked junior will make his debut on the ATP World Tour at the Chengdu Open and has also been granted a wild card for next month's Shanghai Masters tournament.

Many pitfalls await Wu, but as a new brigade - led by the likes of Germany's Alexander Zverev, Canada's Denis Shapovalov and American Frances Tiafoe - begins to make inroads on the ATP Tour, there is a growing belief that he could join them.

He is the first mainland Chinese player to win a junior Grand Slam title. And he is only the fourth player in the past five years to win a junior Major and an ATP Challenger Tour crown in the same season, after Australian Nick Kyrgios (2013), Zverev (2014) and American Taylor Fritz (2015).

Such is China's interest in Wu that his US Open junior triumph was rated by the Xinwen Lianbo news programme as being on par with the retirement in 2011 of basketball great Yao Ming, according to the South China Morning Post.

Chinese tennis has lacked a figurehead since Li's retirement in 2014, even if there are five women in the top 100. There are no male players ranked in the top 200 and the highest is 26-year-old Di Wu at No. 219.

Wu's title run in Shanghai, where he did not drop a set and beat Canadian Peter Polansky in the first round, fuelled interest in the teenager who is being likened to Japan's Kei Nishikori, the world No. 14.

Wu's first professional title lifted him 176 places in the ATP rankings to a career-high No. 320 and he is one of only three 17-year-olds in the top 500, along with Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime and Spain's Nicola Kuhn. But Wu, who splits his year between home and training in Spain, is aiming higher.

"I didn't think too much about winning this title in Shanghai. I just hope from now on there will be more to come," he told the ATP's website. "I believe if I do every step right and work hard, the good results will come along.

"I am very excited to play in Chengdu," he added ahead of his opening-round match against Brazilian Thiago Monteiro today.

"That will be my first ATP World Tour main draw match. I am grateful for this opportunity. I want to learn from the best."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline 'Rising tennis star puts China on map'. Print Edition | Subscribe