Shortly after Wu Yibing made tennis history on Wednesday by becoming the first Chinese man to reach the third round of the U.S. Open, a tournament that dates to 1881, he was informed that his name was on fire on Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat.
Fans and admirers in China were spreading the word that Wu, a past U.S. Open junior champion, had just beaten Nuno Borges of Portugal in a tough five-set match that lasted nearly four hours. Not only was Wu the first Chinese man to advance into the third round at the U.S. Open, he became the first to reach the third round of a Grand Slam event since Kho Sin-Khie, an Indonesian-born player who competed under the Chinese flag, did it at Wimbledon in 1946.
As a groundbreaking player with aspirations to elevate men’s tennis in China, just as the retired two-time major champion Li Na did for Chinese women, Wu, 22, was asked what that kind of social media attention back home meant to him.
“That I’m a good-looking guy,” he quipped, eliciting uproarious laughter from reporters at a late-night news conference.
That may be true, but Wu has other talents that could help make him one of the most influential players in the game. Primarily, he is very good at tennis, with a complete arsenal of shots and the court savvy to squeeze the best out of his ability. And his answer to that question illustrated he has an engaging personality that could also help draw others into his orbit.
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“He is very outgoing and loves to joke around,” said Gerardo Azcurra, his coach. “He is not afraid to talk.”
But as much as Wu enjoys kidding around, he also understands his place in the game. He knows he is in a position to influence the way an entire sport is perceived by millions of people in China, and how fast it can grow. Along with his friends Zhang Zhizhen, 25, and the 17-year-old rising star Shang Juncheng, he is part of the core of China’s emerging men’s tennis hopes to not only to play well on tour, but to develop the game back home.
“I have the responsibility to do it, and with my ability, it will always be part of my career,” Wu said. “I think it can really help kids to love tennis, to pay attention to the sport. Before Li Na, we did not have many tennis facilities in China. But then it got more popular and hopefully I can bring even more tennis to China.”
Wu began playing as a young boy in Hangzhou, China. His father, Wu Kang, was an amateur boxer and felt his son needed to get more physically fit. Wu initially tried badminton, but the net was too high and he could not get the shuttlecock over it. So, he settled on tennis, where the nets are lower and the aspirations higher.
Within a few years, Wu was winning local tournaments and then regional ones. By the time he was 16, he was competing internationally.
He first drew the attention of broad swathes of Chinese tennis fans when he won the U.S. Open junior tournament in 2017, in both singles and doubles. It was a breakthrough that earned him an invitation to train at the I.M.G. Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to work on his game and learn English — which he did extremely well. It was also where he first met Azcurra.
Azcurra left I.M.G. three years ago to coach privately, and Wu asked in January if they could reunite. Wu moved into Azcurra’s house in Bradenton and they have formed a productive relationship, with Wu winning four lower-level tournaments this year.
“He has had some little injuries, some illness,” Azcurra said, “but every time he comes back stronger. He injured his ankle, came back and won a Futures tournament. He got sick, but came back and won a Challenger.”
On Friday, the stakes will grow exponentially when Wu plays Daniil Medvedev of Russia, the No. 1 seed and defending champion, in Arthur Ashe Stadium. It will be the biggest match that Wu, ranked No. 174, has ever played. In a dizzying few months with Azcurra, he has gone from the outskirts of the tennis tour to its largest stadium.
In April, Wu was ranked 1,738th and playing in Orange Park, Fla. In July he was playing a Challenger event (a minor league tournament) in Rome, Ga. But he did well enough to earn a chance to qualify for the U.S. Open, which he did, and now he will face the top player in the world under the lights in Ashe.
Wu shrugged when asked how daunting the challenge will be against Medvedev.
“All tennis players watch his matches, we know how good he is,” Wu said during an interview Thursday afternoon. “I respect him, but when we are on the court, we are opponents competing against each other. None of the rankings matter. I want to show that I’m not scared or whatever. It’s just a match.”
Presumably, many people in China will be paying attention to how Wu fares, both on the court and on social media. He has a Weibo account, but Li Xi, his agent, jokes that he has only about 150,000 followers, a relatively small number in a country as populous as China.
“You need to post more,” she said with a laugh.
“That’s not my job,” he responded.
His job is to play tennis, win matches and give the occasional interview. So, when a reporter asked if there was anything else he would like to add, Wu smiled.
“That’s enough,” he said. “I’ve already given you a lot of information.”