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At the Australian Open, Shang Juncheng Leads Wave of Talent From China

MELBOURNE, Australia — Shang Juncheng could have chosen his father’s sport of soccer or his mother’s sport of table tennis. His father, Shang Yi, was a leading Chinese midfielder, good enough to play for the national team. His mother, Wu Na, was a world champion in doubles.


Instead, their son became a tennis player, leaving home in Beijing at age 11 to train at an academy in Florida.



On Monday in Melbourne, it looked as if he had made a wise choice. Shang, a 17-year-old qualifier and the youngest player in the men’s draw, showed rare skill and maturity as he made his Grand Slam tournament debut and became the first Chinese man to win an Australian Open singles match in the Open era.


He did it with a gritty, often pretty victory, 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (2), 7-5, on opening day over Oscar Otte, an unseeded 29-year-old German with a booming serve and a full beard. Shang, who will face the American Frances Tiafoe in the second round, did it on Court 13 with hundreds of fans packed into the grandstand and shouting encouragement in Mandarin and English.


“I felt like I was playing at home,” he said.


Shang, nicknamed Jerry, speaks both languages fluently after spending so much of his youth in the United States. Though he was interested in soccer in his early years, he said his mother suggested tennis because she believed there were fewer injuries. Shang first played on an indoor hardcourt in Beijing and said he liked it from the start.


“For me, the main goal was to become a professional tennis player, even when I was 6 or 7 years old,” he said in an interview. “We started practicing in China in Beijing. That’s where I started on an indoor hardcourt, and my dad used to play soccer in Spain, so he really liked the system and the way the Spanish athletes work.”


But instead of basing themselves in Spain, the family chose for Shang to train at the Emilio Sanchez Academy operated by the former Spanish ATP player Emilio Sanchez in Naples, Fla.


Shang later moved to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., a longtime hub of the game, and he is managed by IMG, the agency that represents several other Chinese players, including Li Na, who is retired.


Li became the first Chinese Grand Slam singles champion, winning the 2011 French Open and then the 2014 Australian Open. The Chinese men have long lagged behind, and progress has been slow. In 2013 at the Australian Open, Wu Di became the first Chinese man to play in a major tournament in the Open era. It took nearly a decade for a Chinese man to win a singles match in a major.


But Shang, once the world’s top-ranked junior, is the youngest member of a promising new wave that includes Wu Yibing, 23, and Zhang Zhizhen, 26.


All three were in the main draw this year in Melbourne. It is the first time three Chinese men have played singles in the same major in the Open era, which began in 1968.


On Monday, while Shang was breaking through on Court 13, Wu was on adjacent Court 14, playing grinding rallies with Corentin Moutet of France before losing in five sets.


Wu, who also trains at IMG Academy, reached the third round of last year’s U.S. Open, where Zhang lost in the first round. Now Shang, a dynamic left-hander who looks like the most promising talent of the group, has joined them at this level.


“Now we have three players in the top 200, and I’m happy that I’m one of them,” Shang said. “The other two are like older brothers to me and have been on the tour a lot longer than me. We do practice a lot, and we do speak about how the game is right now and how we can push forward to a higher ranking. For me, each step is a learning step right now. I’m in a young stage of my career, only my second year playing professional tennis. So, for me, it’s just watching how they do things, like we’ve also watched Li Na and how she did things.”


Shang wears an earring in his left ear.


“That’s something my dad had for a long time,” he said. “When I was around 10 years old, I was like, ‘I want to be like dad,’ and so we went to get it together. I’ve had it for a long time.”


Shang said his parents nicknamed him Jerry when he was very young after the mouse in the Tom and Jerry cartoons.


“Tom was the one always getting in trouble and Jerry was the smart one, so they thought it was better to choose Jerry,” Shang said.


He plays tennis cleverly, changing gears and speeds often to avoid giving opponents a consistent rhythm. But his top gear is impressive, particularly when he is dictating terms with his quick-strike forehand. Against Otte, he showed some deft volleying touch, as well as plenty of composure: avoiding the temptation to rush between points and gathering himself. He finished off the victory with a bold, leaping backhand winner.


“He’s a complete player,” said his new coach, Dante Bottini. “He can read the court and the game very well, so that’s what surprised me the most when I started working with him. He knows a lot about the game for someone at his age.”


Bottini coached the Japanese star Kei Nishikori and worked more recently with the Chilean Nicolás Jarry and the Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov, both of whom sometimes practiced with Shang at IMG Academy.


Bottini began coaching Shang in the preseason after being recruited by Li Xi, Shang’s primary agent, a former Chinese player who was on the women’s team at the University of Virginia and was sitting courtside on Monday in a bucket hat next to Shang’s father, Yi.


Shang has had no shortage of coaches in his short career, including Marcelo Ríos, the former No. 1 from Chile who worked with Shang for a brief period last year. Though Shang won his first Challenger title in Lexington, Ky., during their collaboration, they soon split.


“It was sad it didn’t work out in the end, but he did bring things to my game,” Shang said.


Once ranked No. 1 on the ATP Tour, Ríos, like Shang, is a left-hander, but Shang said his biggest source of inspiration has been another left-handed No. 1: Rafael Nadal.


Shang first saw him play in person at the men’s ATP event in Beijing, and though Shang said he had not returned to China since he was 14 because of the coronavirus pandemic, he is eager to play there again once the country, which is reopening, allows international tournaments like the Beijing event or the Masters 1000 in Shanghai to resume.


“It would be great to play at home in China,” he said.


For now, considering the supportive atmosphere on Monday, he will have to settle for playing at home in Australia, but he should face a bigger challenge on Wednesday in Tiafoe, a U.S. Open semifinalist last year who is seeded No. 16 in Melbourne.


“Jerry’s obviously having a great tournament, but we need to keep his feet on the ground,” Bottini said. “He has a lot of potential, as we can all see, but we need to go little by little. I think he has a big career ahead of him.”

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