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Who's Next? Ze Zhang

Who's Next?

Zhang© Getty ImagesZhang Ze is slated to play doubles with Roger Federer at the Shanghai Rolex Masters.

With the success and rising popularity of WTA star Li Na, Chinese tennis has experienced a surge in recent years, and Ze Zhang is looking to be the catalyst that drives the men’s contingent to new heights.

China’s top-ranked player is setting the standard for his countrymen. In 2012, he became the first Chinese man to beat a player ranked in the Top 15, when he stunned Richard Gasquet to advance to the China Open quarter-finals. Earlier in the year, he won the first Grand Slam qualifying match of his career at Roland Garros. 

A semi-finalist at the ATP Challenger Tour stops in Beijing and Shanghai this year, Zhang is hoping to continue his rapid ascendancy up the Emirates ATP Rankings. 

The 23 year old is currently World No. 148 and is looking to be ranked inside the Top 100 soon. As part of Tecnifibre’s ‘Who’s Next’ series, ATPWorldTour.com caught up with Zhang to hear how Li inspires the Chinese men’s side, the pressure of being the highest-ranked man in his country, and the expectations for his doubles campaign with Roger Federer at the Shanghai Rolex Masters.

China has only been a tennis-playing nation for the past 12-15 years. How did you get your start in tennis? Are you a part of a tennis-playing family?
I went to school like a normal kid when I was a boy. A tennis coach came to my school to choose kids to study tennis, maybe I was quite suitable, and I was selected. I started to love this sport as soon as I learned it. Then I joined the NanJing team, then the Jiang Su Province team, and at last, I joined Chinese national team.

When did you come to realise that you were going to be a professional tennis player?
I was six when I started tennis, initially as just a hobby. Since 2003, I entered the provincial team and I decided to go on this path to be a professional player.

What were the facilities like as a child?
At that time we only had two tennis courts, so lots of little kids practised together.

Who has been your tennis idol?
My idol is Marat Safin, because I think he was a very cool character.

Will Li Na's success inspire you that Chinese players can also make breakthroughs in tennis?
Of course this gives me a lot of motivation. We have a good chance to have bigger success and breakthroughs.

How is your relationship with Li Na?
Not bad. Li Na has been very concerned about our men’s tennis. She thinks we should be more confident. Only players like Li can reach the top of the sport.

What is the best advice you have received?
I think the first thing to really be on the tour is to think like a professional player. Even if no one came to remind you or tells you how to do that, you, yourself will have a strong desire to improve yourself to do better.

Did Janko Tipsarevic give you any advice when you practised together in Shanghai, as part of Tecnifibre’s Next Generation series?
Last year we practised together. I think the difference between Top 10 and other tennis players is that they are more professional, more aware of what to do. 

You are currently the highest ranked Chinese man. Has this brought you any pressure?
Everything has two sides, the pressure is certainly there. After all, everyone wants to become the first, especially when someone gets close to you, you will feel the pressure. It will motivate you to work harder and to be better.

Last year you set a couple records for Chinese men’s tennis, including winning the first Grand Slam qualifying match and breaking the ranking record. What’s your impression of last year? 
For breaking Pan Bing’s record, I was not that surprised. I think this is normal, because I set the goal to be in the Top 100. To win the first Grand Slam match, however, it feels like being a champion. After all, it is a Grand Slam tournament. It is a very big encouragement.

What is your next goal?
My goal is to enter the world Top 100 and qualify for a Grand Slam tournament.

You are now training with a coach from the United States. What is he primarily focused on?
It’s mainly on technical and tactical aspects and to change my style of play. He wants me to become more aggressive than before. He asks me to go to the net more.

How is the relationship for you and how long will it be?
Our cooperation will certainly have some ups and downs, because my original type of play is defensive and I have to change to the present offensive way. It needs time to adapt. From the match result, my tennis level has greatly improved. We signed a contract for one year and maybe will have chance to renew it. 

You are playing doubles with Roger Federer in Shanghai. What do you hope to learn from that experience?
I do have a lot of expectations, because he is a top player. I also do have a lot of pressure. There is a very good opportunity for me to learn from Federer. I will try to communicate with him in order to give spectators a very good performance.

Give us a glimpse into your life outside of tennis. What do you do to relax? What are your hobbies?I like to listen to music and hang out with my friends.

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