Former junior World No. 1 Wu Yibing reached a career-high of No. 174 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings this week behind his second straight ATP Challenger Tour title. But the 22-year-old from China has his sights set on the Top 100, with one eye on a particular number.
“The highest-ranked Chinese player ever is No. 136,” he said in an exclusive interview with ATPTour.com, alluding to Zhang Zhizhen. “I think I have a pretty good chance to break it this year. I’m going to trust myself and have a high standard.”
It’s an ambitious goal for the six-footer, who played exclusively on a domestic circuit in China in 2020-21 after recovering from elbow surgery. But Wu is already the Chinese No. 1, having passed Zhang earlier this month. In 2020, Wu had a piece of bone removed from his elbow. (“It sounds terrifying, but I made it,” he says.)
Wu and the 25-year-old Zhang are both in the Top 200, with the 17-year-old Shang Juncheng and 20-year-old Yunchaokete Bu representing China inside the Top 400.
But Wu’s recent form on the Challenger Tour has tilted the spotlight his way.
He returned at the ITF level in January but twisted his ankle badly in his first tournament back in Cancun, an injury he likened to Alexander Zverev’s gruesome incident at Roland Garros. Wu won his next event, an April ITF event in Florida, and has since won three Challenger titles in the United States, including back-to-back trophy runs this month in Rome, Georgia and Indianapolis.
His four career Challenger titles make him the most decorated Chinese player in the circuit’s history.
In his Indianapolis triumph, he saved six match points to defeat American Aleksandar Kovacevic 6-7(10), 7-6(13) 6-3 in an epic final. He’s also earned a pair of Top-100 victories this season, beating Aussie Jordan Thompson and Germany’s Peter Gojowczyk.
“Those matches gave me a lot of confidence, especially the match against Jordan Thompson,” Wu said of his 1-6, 7-6(5), 6-2 victory in Zagreb. “Especially being down a set and struggling in the second set and fighting through it. It gave me confidence that I could compete with Top 100 players.”
After testing himself against international opposition, Wu feels like a more mature player than he was before his elbow injury. He is still as aggressive as ever, but no longer finds himself rushing in his attempts to generate power.
While he is happy with his overall game, particularly his enhanced return, Wu is keying on his first-serve percentage and net skills as areas for improvement.
“In general, the Chinese players, we’re working a lot on the baseline,” he explained. “We’re missing some shots like slicing, like volleys. So this is something I’m missing from my junior time of practising, which I’m looking forward to improving.”
Wu is also eager to improve his fitness in order to compete on the ATP Tour.
“I think mentally I am ready to overcome all the injuries I might come across in the near future,” he said. “My body is not strong enough like other players, so I am ready to put more effort in the gym and stretching room. One of the important lessons I have to learn is how to prevent injury. I have talked to my physio quite a lot lately about this subject.”
Fortunately, he has a team to help guide him — a rarity for players at the Challenger level.
“I’m lucky being Chinese. I get a lot of support from my federation and also my agency,” he explained. “They’re helping me to find these great coaches and physios and fitness coaches. They’re doing a great job so far this year.
“I’m not going to take all the credit myself. Tennis is a lonely sport. I don’t have many friends on the Tour — I missed a few years of these tournaments. My coaches and my physio, they have to keep me up, keep me hungry about playing matches and keep me fit. All these little things make a team.”
Wu at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Indianapolis. Photo Credit: Larry Lawrence
Wu’s status as one of China’s top tennis prospects has also given him the opportunity to meet international sporting superstars like golf great Tiger Woods and basketball legend Yao Ming, who he called “The Great Wall of China”. He also met Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons when the Philadelphia 76ers visited Shanghai in 2018.
A big NBA fan, Wu enjoyed a nice side-benefit from his time in the United States earlier this season during the playoffs. Due to the time difference, the games are on TV in the morning in China, which conflicted with Wu’s practice schedule. In the U.S., he was able to watch the playoffs in prime time.
“Here, I can chill after a long day of practice,” said Wu, who calls Kevin Durant his favourite player. “I can just chill on my bed and watch some great games.”
Music is Wu’s other passion off the court, and he credited Taiwanese artist Jay Chou’s newly released songs for spurring him on to his recent success.
“I’m going to give him a little credit for winning these tournaments, listening to his music,” Wu said with a laugh.
A celebrity in his own right, Wu also enjoys live streaming on Chinese social media and speaking directly with his fans.
“I do it because I have some free time and I want to talk to someone,” he shared. “Instead of playing video games, I choose to do the live streaming and interact with all the Chinese fans. Maybe some junior players will get inspired by it.
“Interacting with fans brings some light to my life on Tour. I guess gaining some supporters is never a bad thing.”
As he sets his sights on the ATP Tour, Wu can also draw from the experience of meeting and competing with many of the game’s top players. He was a hitting partner at the 2017 Nitto ATP Finals, and took a set off Kei Nishikori as a wild card at the 2018 Rolex Shanghai Masters.
Thanks to his rapid rise up the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, Wu has booked himself a return to the big stage in August, when he will make his senior Grand Slam qualifying debut at the US Open — the site of his junior singles triumph in 2017.
“I actually pictured it quite a lot in my head,” Wu said of his return to the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. “Taking some pictures there, and to check out if they put my name on the wall… all the things that a normal person would think of.
“But I don’t want to overthink too much about the emotional stuff, because I’m going to New York to play tennis, not to be nostalgic about the good old times. I hope I can turn this emotion into some positive energy to be helpful for my matches.
“It will be a very special feeling to be back. I finished my junior career at the US Open and now my professional career might start a new chapter there. It does feel like destiny in some way. But I know I still need to focus and bring out the best tennis on court.”
– with reporting assistance from Michael Chen