LONDON (Reuters) - 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, though, 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 U.S. Open this month and last week reached another huge milestone by winning his first professional tournament, an ATP Challenger event in Shanghai.
Next week 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 wildcard for next month’s Masters 1000 event in Shanghai.
Many pitfalls await Wu, but as a new brigade begins to make an inroads on the ATP Tour — led by the likes of Germany’s Alexander Zverev, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov and American Frances Tiafoe — there is a growing belief that he could join them.
He is the first mainland Chinese player to win a junior grand slam and only the fourth player in the past five years to win a junior major and an ATP Challenger Tour crown in the same season, the others being Australian Nick Kyrgios (2013), Zverev (2014) and American Taylor Fritz (2015).
Such is the interest in Wu in China that his U.S. Open junior triumph received equal billing on the Xinwen Lianbo news programme with the retirement of basketball great Yao Ming, according to the South China Morning Post.
Chinese tennis has long lacked a figurehead, even if there are five women in the top 100.
There are no male players ranked inside the top 200 and the highest is 26-year-old Di Wu at 219.
So Wu’s title run in Shanghai, where he did not drop a set and beat experienced Canadian Peter Polansky in the first round, fueled already burgeoning interest in a 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 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 clearly 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. That will be my first ATP World Tour main draw match. I am grateful for this opportunity. I want to learn from the best.”
With tennis academies springing up all over China, Wu could be the player to light the blue touchpaper.
“I hope with my good performance I will show the right path for young Chinese players how to turn pro,” he said.
.; Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by David Goodman