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Zhang aces opener to serve up history for China

Updated: 2023-05-31 08:53
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Veteran delivers another breakthrough with flying start in Paris

China's Zhang Zhizhen poses for a selfie with fans after his victory over Serbia's Dusan Lajovic at the French Open on Monday. AFP

PARIS — For the first time in the Open era, a Chinese mainland player has secured a place in the second round of the men's singles draw at the French Open. In the latest in a series of recent breakthroughs for Chinese men on the ATP Tour, Zhang Zhizhen on Monday advanced past Serbia's Dusan Lajovic, who was forced to retire due to injury with Zhang leading 6-1, 4-1 at the time.

Amid waving Chinese flags on Court 5 at Roland Garros, Zhang immediately took a stranglehold on the match, breaking Lajovic four times to race into a one-set lead.

The 27-year-old Zhang broke in the fourth game of the second to lead 4-1, after which Lajovic was unable to continue playing.

"I performed well today, I kept my cool at crucial moments and made very few unforced errors," said Zhang, who had lost his previous three Grand Slam first-round matches, all in five sets.

"I didn't envision my first Grand Slam main-draw win to be like this, but such is life. You never know what will happen, but you have to be ready."

Zhang will next face Thiago Agustin Tirante, the world No 153 from Argentina, who produced an upset by defeating Dutch 25th seed Botic van de Zandschulp 6-2, 4-6, 6-3, 6-4.

World No 71 Zhang is in the form of his life, becoming the first Chinese mainland player to reach the quarterfinals of an ATP 1000 Masters tournament in Madrid earlier this month.

"We had so many people eagerly awaiting our first win. One step at a time, and then we can accumulate many wins," added Zhang.

Born in Shanghai, Zhang was one of three Chinese in the men's singles main draw at the clay-court Grand Slam this year.

Earlier on Monday, qualifier Shang Juncheng, the youngest of the trio at 18, was a set away from claiming his first win at a major before losing an epic encounter 4-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1 to Peru's Juan Pablo Varillas.

"After the second set, I struggled physically because I haven't been training much recently," said Shang, who revealed he had recently been diagnosed with a mononucleosis infection.

"I was feeling exhausted after playing for only 10 minutes. It (the infection) has been affecting me a lot recently, even disrupting my sleep. So, I was just happy to be here, to be honest," Shang added.

Shang looked poised to progress to round two when he broke Varillas in the fourth and eighth games of the second set to take a two-set lead.

But Varillas, ranked 94th, staged a strong comeback while Shang grappled with a left-wrist injury that forced him to call for a medical timeout in the fifth set.

The world No 200 failed to earn a single break in the remaining three sets as his opponent turned the tide to clinch his first Grand Slam win.

Varillas will next face Spanish veteran Roberto Bautista Agut, seeded 19th, who dispatched another Chinese player, Wu Yibing, 7-6 (4), 6-1,6-1.

"This is my first year competing in ATP events on clay. Overall, it hasn't been too bad. At least I managed to win some matches," said Wu, who reached the quarterfinals in Geneva the week prior to the French Open.

The 23-year-old arrived in Paris as the highest-ranked Chinese men's player at No 54.

Last year, Wu became the first male Chinese mainland player to claim a Grand Slam main-draw win in the Open era at the US Open. He racked up another milestone in February, when he became the first Chinese player to win an ATP Tour title, defeating John Isner in the final of the Dallas Open.

Wu will now team up with Argentina's Pedro Cachin to compete in the men's doubles.


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