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Tennis

Zhizhen Zhang Is In New Territory

10:30 AM EDT on May 3, 2023

Zhizhen Zhang hits a ball
Jose Manuel Alvarez/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Since the aughts, China has steadily fed women's tennis with strong players—including a Hall of Famer in Li Na—but by comparison, it's been slow to crack the men's game. Now 26-year-old Zhizhen Zhang is speeding that process along. Last October, Zhang became the first Chinese player to enter the top 100 in the men's rankings, on the strength of a blistering summer on the Challenger circuit. He said at the time his aim was to enter the top 50. An admirable goal, but arguably more modest than his accomplishment this week on clay at the Madrid Open: becoming the first Chinese player to make the quarterfinal of a Masters, which are just one notch below the majors. More to the point, Zhang got there by upsetting three seeded players in three-setters, incrementally advancing his personal bests: Denis Shapovalov (his first win over a top-30 player), Cam Norrie (his first top-20 win), and Taylor Fritz (his first top-10 win). Even if Zhang were to lose his next match this would be, by some distance, the most impressive tournament performance from a Chinese man.

Zhang is 6-foot-4 with a tremendous serve, which partially explains why he's played seven(!) tiebreaks in this Madrid run and won six. With no disrespect to Norrie, and mild disrespect to Shapovalov, those wins were great but not altogether inconceivable. The real eyebrow-raiser was Zhang's 3-6, 7-6(5), 7-6(8) victory over Fritz, who has generally been strong. It was a clash of colossal high-level forehands, as Zhang pushed his towards the 100-mph mark with regularity—the biggest hitting of the clay season thus far, and a loud reminder that players up-and-down the top 100 can sustain top-five strokes should you catch them on the right day.

Mentally, the match was torturous for both players. Zhang went down a set and a break, returning serve at 4-3, 40-0 in the second, before clawing back to a second-set tiebreak; there he fell into an 0-3 hole before winning it. Serving for the match at 6-5 in the third set, Zhang was broken, sending the players to a decisive tiebreak. There he fended off three Fritz match points. He lost his first match point, courtesy of a hair-raising, go-for-broke forehand pass from Fritz, but cashed out on his second match point. Asked how he kept his cool, Zhang had jokes: “After so many losses, you feel calm."

With this win, Zhang leapt up 33 spots in the live rankings, reaching No. 66, closing in on his stated goal of entering the top 50. For now, countryman Yibing Wu sits ahead of him—he got a breakout Dallas Open title in February, coincidentally beating both Shapovalov and Fritz en route—but another win would put Zhang ahead. Next up is an unusually winnable quarterfinal against Aslan Karatsev, who went oddly nuclear in 2021 (even making an Australian Open semifinal) before fading out of the top 100 this season. In his post-match interview, the man nicknamed ZZZ let us in on a behind-the-scenes detail: “I’ll tell you a secret. We had a practice, I lost 6-0 with Karatsev." May this memory keep him just as cool as he's been in these three clutch wins.

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