Wu Yibing made history on Wednesday evening when he reached the third round of the US Open, becoming the first male Chinese singles player to advance that far in tournament history (since 1881). No Chinese man had made the third round at a Grand Slam since Wimbledon in 1946..
You would never know it by how relaxed Wu was during his press conference after the match. When told by a reporter he was the “hot-trending topic” on Chinese social media, he reacted with a joke.
“I’m a good-looking guy, I guess,” Wu said, drawing laughs from the room.
The world is watching Wu, especially his fans in China. This is a big moment not only for Wu, but his country.
The 22-year-old was not always destined for stardom, though. Wu’s start in tennis came as a means to lose weight. His father Kang, a boxer, knew a track-and-field coach at a training facility. That coach sent four-year-old Wu to a badminton court for exercise.
“The net was too high, I was like half [the height] of the net,” Wu said. “I couldn’t play that, so when we walked out of the facility there was a tennis court and the net was lower than badminton. That’s how I started.”
It was not exactly love at first sight.
“To be honest I didn’t know what tennis was. I was too small, too little at that time. We had I think 15 little kids [in a class], we practised together,” Wu said. “What we did was just hit a shot [and] run a circle of the court because we were too many and we had only a few courts. That’s my first memory of tennis.”
Wu was given an adult racquet, which was almost as big as he was. All he remembers is swinging the massive stick around.
“I was like cleaning stuff,” Wu said. “I had to wipe all the leaves on the ground!”
By the time Wu was 12, coaches began telling his parents he had potential. The best part of it for him was when he played tennis he did not have to go to school. But the budding talent began to garner attention. Zhang Bendou, the leading tennis journalist in China, recalls the first time he met the young player.
“The first time I saw Wu was in Shanghai, I visited an indoor clay court where Wu trained that summer. [He was] 12 years old, 14 years old, I don’t remember exactly. They just told me this kid really has some special talent and everything about his game is so quick,” Zhang said. “At that time I didn’t really think too much of it, because for the past 15 years I’ve seen too many ‘talented kids’ and they never made it. However, Wu proved he is really a special talent.”
Wu won the 2017 US Open boys’ singles title and reached junior World No. 1. His countrymen, including Wu Di — with whom he won a doubles match at the 2017 Rolex Shanghai Masters — saw his potential.
“Yibing already got much attention from many domestic coaches and experts when he was a teenager. His results and talent were well recognised and he also made progress so fast. His understanding in tennis went above his age at that time,” Wu Di said. “I have known him since his teenage [years]. We got familiar later and then we became opponents soon… As a teenager, he has shown the potential of a future world-class player.”
Wu cracked the Top 300 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings in March 2019, but he did not compete from March 2019 until January 2022 due to several injuries, including issues with his elbow, lower back, shoulder and wrist. Elbow surgery was the most serious issue of the bunch.
While in China during the Covid-19 pandemic, Wu trained, but he also did other things he never had time to do during his junior ascent. He learned how to drive and even studied.
When Wu returned to the circuit this January in Mexico, disaster struck. He turned his ankle and was unable to compete again until the end of April. But instead of getting down on himself — sitting outside the Top 1,800 in the world early this year — he remained positive.
Wu has won 32 of his 36 matches at all levels this season and climbed to a career-high World No. 173 earlier this month. If he stuns World No. 1 Daniil Medvedev in the third round of the US Open, he is projected to become the highest-ranked Chinese player in Pepperstone ATP Rankings history (since 1973).
“Ranking-wise I didn’t think that much. I just want to enjoy every match I play whenever I’m on the court. I won’t start thinking about rankings, I will think [about] what I do [on the court],” Wu said. “[A] ranking is just a thing. If you’re playing good, the points and even the money, it’s going to come. I’m not worried about that.”
Chinese players Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen both qualified for this year’s US Open. Photo Credit: Dustin Satloff/USTA
Whether Wu pays attention to it or not, the pressure will increasingly mount the higher he climbs. Wu Di was the first Chinese man to play a match at the Australian Open and in 2016 he became the first Chinese man to lift an ATP Challenger Tour singles trophy, making him one of the few who can understand that pressure.
“In the past few years, Chinese men’s tennis has been a bit silent, but he gave all of us a big surprise at the US Open 2022,” Wu Di said. “The internal and external pressure and attention will make you distracted and it’s hard not to think about it, but Wu Yibing is very mature and calm in handling it. Everyone has paid special attention to his growth since he was a teen.”
It has not been an easy road for Wu from the top of the juniors to the top of the ATP Tour, but the Chinese star is now earning the rewards for his hard work. The biggest change for him has been enjoying the sport and the journey more since his return.
“I’m happy I’m still playing tennis and enjoying tennis. I think this is really good I can keep my passions for tennis even though I was hurting bad,” Wu said. “I think this [is] not easy to do. But I’m glad I made it.”