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China’s last man falls

Zhang out but Djokovic sees ‘potential’ in country’s young players, with the right support

Novak Djokovic speaks during a press conference for the Shanghai Masters tennis tournament at Qizhong Forest Sports City Tennis Center in Shanghai on Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
Novak Djokovic speaks during a press conference for the Shanghai Masters tennis tournament at Qizhong Forest Sports City Tennis Center in Shanghai on Tuesday. (AP-Yonhap News)
SHANGHAI ― China’s No. 1 male player Zhang Ze was unable to translate the success he had seen at Roger Federer’s side in his first-round singles match at the Shanghai Rolex Masters on Tuesday, as the last of China’s singles wild cards folded.

Although the seats were packed with people lining the stairs of the bleachers to cheer him on, Zhang saw none of the rah-rah that came from his doubles victory at center court the previous day, when he and fifth-seeded Roger Federer trumped South Africa’s Kevin Anderson and Russia’s Dmitry Tursunov in a swift straight-set takedown.

Playing on his own this time, world No. 271 Zhang was squarely defeated by Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, 7-5, 6-2. He showed some of the same baseline control as in his doubles match, but lost his cool, struggling with clumsy returns and wild shots to the ceiling and far wall.

It was his fifth straight appearance at Shanghai ― fourth in the main draw ― and his fifth straight loss here.

Earlier in the day, his compatriot Gong Mao-xin lost to German Philipp Kohlschreiber by the same score. Wu Di, the first of China’s three main-draw wild cards to play, had fallen to Germany’s Florian Mayer, 6-3, 6-3, on Sunday.

Despite China’s sweeping losses, top-seeded, world No. 2 Novak Djokovic sees potential in the country’s young players, along with growing interest in the sport.

“As far as I can see, the last few years that I’ve been coming, every year that I come back to both Beijing and Shanghai, I see more attendance, more people, more improvement in the organization, just generally more attention towards these tournaments and this sport in China,” Djokovic said at a press conference on Tuesday.

“There is so much to look forward to, I’m sure, for many young kids,” he added. “There is a potential, yes, there is. I see it. Also you can see in their eyes, especially the young players, they want to succeed. They love the sport. They want to learn.”

But to produce more great tennis players who will emerge on the world stage ― such as China’s own women’s No. 5 Li Na ― a country with a nascent tennis scene needs to foster an environment to support them, both on and off the court.

“There is quality. It’s just that consistency is very important: the amount of professionalism and commitment and dedication that they are ready to give, and also the support they get,” said Djokovic.

It takes a little bit more for players from this region to compete in worldwide events. They must have not only persistence, mental strength and the versatility to play well on different surfaces, he said, but also the practical ability to travel all the way to Europe and the U.S. where most tournaments are held.

“Many things combine that actually are kind of a formula for success. You don’t have one secret … to be successful. It’s many, many things together.”

While China’s singles players are out, wild card duo Gong Mao-xin and Li Zhe represent China in the doubles main draw, playing their first match on Wednesday. They are the only all-Asian team.

Zhang also still has doubles to play alongside Federer in the second round against Croatian Ivan Dodig and Brazilian Marcelo Melo. The winners could face the top-ranked twins Mike and Bob Bryan in the semifinal.

By Elaine Ramirez, Korea Herald correspondent

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