Twelve months ago, a despondent Wu Yibing was retiring with injury from a low-level clay court tournament in Italy, earning a meagre 530 euros ($570) for his troubles.
Fast-forward a year and 23-year-old Wu is his country’s highest-ranked male player at 59 in the world and about to spearhead a landmark assault at the French Open where it has been 86 years since a Chinese man last played in the main draw.
Wu will not be alone when the season’s second major gets underway on Sunday as Zhang Zhizhen is also guaranteed a spot.
Shang Juncheng can make it three Chinese men in the tournament if he gets through the final qualifying round on Thursday.
“The excitement in China around the top Chinese male players is palpable now and there is strong media interest linked to the breakthrough of these players on tour,” ATP executive vice-president Alison Lee told AFP.
Kho Sin-Khie and Choy Wai-Chuen were the last men to represent China in the French capital back in 1937.
Long overshadowed by their female counterparts, Wu and Zhang have been racking up an impressive series of ‘firsts’.
Wu was the first Chinese man to make the third round of the US Open in 2022 where it took world number one and defending champion Daniil Medvedev to stop him.
He took his new-found celebrity status with good humour.
“I’m a good-looking guy, I guess,” he replied when told he was the hottest topic on Chinese social media.
Earlier this year, Wu became the first Chinese player to win an ATP Tour title in Dallas.
Unlike the small change he pocketed at Francavilla al Mare in Italy this time last year, Wu is guaranteed at least 69,000 euros ($74,300) just by playing his first round at Roland Garros.
A US Open junior champion in 2017, Wu, the son of a boxer, was sidelined for the best part of three years from March 2019 to January 2022 with elbow, back, shoulder and wrist injuries. Covid lockdown deepened his gloom.
However, he rapidly made up for lost time. In March 2022, he was 1,869 in the world; in April this year, he reached a career high of 55.