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The French Open brings new hope for male tennis players from China.

Over the past year, a trio of up-and-coming tennis stars from China has accomplished a number of firsts, both in Melbourne and at Flushing Meadows, pointing towards a brighter future for male players and looking to replicate the accomplishment of Chinese women. At Roland Garros, Zhang Zhizhen became the oldest of the three players to set another milestone, ending his country’s 86-year wait for a male singles victory on the clay in Paris.

The 350-seater venue, Court No. 8, sits between the French Open’s two main courtyards and is among the smallest of the 18 clay courts at Roland Garros. On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon, it was also among the noisiest, due to Chinese fans waving flags attempting to push Li Zheng, the world’s 40th-ranked player, during her opening-round loss.

Boisterous Chinese fans have become a fixture at the Paris Grand Slam tournament, where Chinese women saw their breakthrough on clay in 2011 when Li Na won the first Grand Slam singles title for a Chinese player.

The French Open holds a “special place in Chinese hearts,” according to tennis enthusiast Youyuan, who was leaving the stands at Court No. 8 after Li’s 6-3, 6-3 loss to Lauren Davis of the United States. “We’re used to seeing female players from China here in Paris,” said the 36-year-old from Suzhou, near Shanghai, making his fourth trip to Roland Garros. “The great news this year is that we have male players too.”

The men’s draw included three Chinese players this year, all of whom played their opening-round matches on Monday. The first to play was Shang Juncheng, a teenage sensation who, in January, made it to the Australian Open’s second round when he was just 17 years old. Shang raced to an early two-set lead against Juan Pablo Varillas of Peru but faded away as a wrist injury and inexperience caught up to him in the punishing heat, ultimately bowing out in five sets (4-6, 2-6, 6-2, 6-3, 6-1).

Meanwhile, 23-year-old Wu Yibing faced a challenging opponent in the form of veteran Spaniard Roberto Bautista Agut, who reached the last-16 here in Paris twice. Wu narrowly lost the first set in a tie-break before suffering a relatively straightforward 7-6, 6-1, 6-1 defeat.

Their departure left it up to Zhang Zhizhen, 26 years old, to secure China’s first male spot in the second round since 1937. In the end, the world’s 71st-ranked player needed only 59 minutes on court, with Dusan Lajovic of Serbia retiring with a stomach virus while trailing 6-1, 4-1.

During the press conference after his triumph on Monday, Zhang called the victory “quite special” and stated that he hoped that his achievement would inspire his countrymen to attain the kind of success that Chinese women have garnered in tennis.

As a relatively late bloomer, Zhang became the first Chinese man to break into the top 100 in the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP)’s world ranking. In the run-up to the French Open, he also became the first to reach the quarter-finals of an ATP Masters 1000 tournament, in Madrid, defeating a trio of top-50 players along the way.

Wu and Shang, the other two rising stars, have also accomplished a series of significant firsts over the course of the past year. Wu ended China’s decades-long dry spell at the US Open by reaching the third round at Flushing Meadows, while Shang had a successful Grand Slam debut at the Australian Open in January.

In February, Wu became the first male Chinese player to win an ATP Tour event, defeating home favourite John Isner in the final of the Dallas Open.

The rise of the men’s game has come at an excellent time for China, offering a welcome distraction from the controversy surrounding the disappearance of Peng Shuai, the nation’s most well-known female player, who vanished from public view after levelling allegations of sexual assault against a high-ranking Chinese government official in 2021.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA), the sport’s governing body, announced soon after that it would suspend all of its tournaments in China until following a governmental investigation into the matter. The boycott was lifted without an inquiry last month, signifying the WTA’s unwillingness to cede the growing tennis market in China.

Youyuan, a tennis fan from Suzhou, expressed confidence that Zhang, Wu, and Shang’s accomplishments would further promote tennis in China for male players. He noted that the sport is still primarily accessible to youngsters in large cities whose parents are capable of paying for training, but interest is growing. “People in France have been playing tennis for centuries, whereas we’ve only had a few decades of experience,” he said. “But we’ll catch up.”