Published: 10:06, May 28, 2024
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No feet of clay for China's aces
By Sun XIaochen
Zhang Zhizhen hits a return during his men's singles first round match against Aleksandar Vukic at the French Open at Roland Garros, Paris, May 26, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

The idea that clay is the Achilles heel of Chinese tennis players is being put firmly to bed in Paris.

With four of five Chinese players finishing on the winning side after the first day's play, this year's French Open is serving up a strong argument against the long-perceived notion that clay-court tennis doesn't suit the hard-court-dependent Chinese.

At least, it certainly wasn't the case on Sunday, as China's domestic stars prevailed at Roland Garros on the slow-paced, high-bounce dirt surfaces that very few of them had access to early on in their careers.

"I still don't like the clay court, to be honest, because it's always so physically demanding playing on it," China's top men's ace Zhang Zhizhen said after edging out Australia's Aleksandar Vukic 3-1, getting his second major of the year off to a flying start.

As Zhang noted, it took nearly three grueling hours for the Chinese world No 42 to outplay his 93rd-ranked opponent Aleksandar Vukic 6-4, 4-6,6-3, 7-5 in a battle of resilience that featured long rallies, unpredictable bounces and back-and-forth slides, which represent the distinctive beauty of clay tennis

As Zhang noted, it took nearly three grueling hours for the Chinese world No 42 to outplay his 93rd-ranked opponent 6-4, 4-6,6-3, 7-5 in a battle of resilience that featured long rallies, unpredictable bounces and back-and-forth slides, which represent the distinctive beauty of clay tennis.

"You have to run up and down, and back and forth, all the time to cover the court. You don't serve as many aces as you would on a hard court, and it is really difficult to score a direct winner on the baseline, given that the slower and higher bounce allows more time for defense," Zhang said of the challenge of winning at Roland Garros.

"But, to play on clay helps polish your game. The long rallies, after all, will force you to think more, and plan your shots.

"What could be done with one or two killer shots on the hard court requires more thinking and strategy on clay. You have to construct your play point by point, before eventually setting up a perfect opportunity to hit a winning shot," said Zhang, who arrived in Paris on the back of a quarterfinal run at a clay-court Masters event in Rome.

With a second-round clash against world No 49 Lorenzo Sonego scheduled on Wednesday, Zhang, who also reached the final eight at the 2023 Madrid Masters, said he expects nothing but a tougher grind against the Italian clay specialist.

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Zhang Zhizhen of China hits a return during the men's singles first round match between Zhang Zhizhen of China and Aleksandar Vukic of Australia at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros, Paris, France, May 26, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

"All the Italians grew up on clay courts. I think they will be tougher to beat on this kind of surface compared to others. We played once before and we practiced together a couple of times. I know for sure it won't be an easy match," said Zhang, who beat Sonego in straight sets on grass in their only previous encounter in Eastbourne, England, in June 2023.

A rare case among his national peers, Zhang had been exposed to clay-court tennis much earlier, as he spent several of his junior years, funded by the municipal team in his native Shanghai, training in Spain and Italy on the surface, which is seen as particularly beneficial for youngsters to hone their footwork, shot variety and tenacity.

During his breakout season in 2022, Zhang won his third career Challenger-level title on clay in Cordenons, Italy, in August that year, leading up to his milestone of becoming the first Chinese mainland men's player to break the world top-100 that October.

Wang Yafan of China serves during the women's singles first round match between Wang Yafan of China and Maria Timofeeva of Russia at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros, Paris, France, May 26, 2024. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Also on Sunday, in the women's draw, three Chinese players Wang Yafan, Wang Xiyu and Wang Xinyu all pulled through their respective first-round tests at Roland Garros to prove their much improved competitiveness at the clay-court major, where women's legend Li Na won Asia's first singles Grand Slam title in 2011.

Wang Yafan's straight-sets victory over Russia's Maria Timofeeva marked the Chinese veteran's first career main-draw win in Paris, just a month after she turned 30.

Having had very good practices tailored for clay-court tennis over the past two weeks, I've learned to focus on what I can control, and on the process, rather than being anxious for the result.

Wang Yafan, Chinese professional tennis player

Her new-found form on clay, a surface on which she used to struggle, is owed to a special, pre-event training program and her more composed approach, she reckoned.

"We had little experience of playing on clay when we were young. We learned how to slide, brake and move comfortably on this surface relatively later on," Wang Yafan said after her 6-3, 6-3 win against Timofeeva on Court 6.

"Having had very good practices tailored for clay-court tennis over the past two weeks, I've learned to focus on what I can control, and on the process, rather than being anxious for the result," said the current world No 68, who will challenge Ukraine's 32nd-ranked Dayana Yastremska on Wednesday.

Later, on Court 5, Wang Xiyu survived an eye-catching all-Chinese encounter, outplaying compatriot Bai Zhuoxuan 7-5, 6-7(4), 6-3 in nearly three hours, before Wang Xinyu overcame a first-set scare to beat German qualifier Jule Niemeier 0-6, 6-2, 6-4.

READ MORE: Victorious Zhang gets into a baseline groove

Both matches bore witness to the closer gap between higher- and lower-ranked players on the clay court, which usually levels the playing field in today's quick-strike professional tennis.

sunxiaochen@chinadaily.com.cn