July 19, 2024

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MORE TENNIS THAN YOU'LL EVER NEED

All-Chinese final round brings all the drama in the desert

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. – Even on paper, this one looked like a must-see.

Beijing’s Juncheng (Jerry) Shang, who just turned 18 last month, is one of those IMG-signed, academy-raised “can’t miss” prospects wearing the latest Nike.

He took on Shanghai’s Zhizhen Zhang, who is none of those things. It’s been a long slog and, at 26, Zhang finally broke into the top 100 last October.

The two met in the final round of qualifying at Indian Wells on Tuesday, with the prize being a spot in the draw of the main event, which gets under way Wednesday.

The match had … everything.

In the end, it was the older Zhang who prevailed – but not before saving two match points – in a 6-7 (10), 6-3, 7-6 (5) marathon that took a few moments over three hours to complete.

Here’s what it looked like.

An ankle issue for the younger Shang resulted in the doctor coming out and having a look, when he was up 5-4 in the third and Zhang was about to serve to stay in the match.

It wasn’t one of … “those” things, though. It was pretty clear Shang was hurting. It may have been one of those high ankle sprains that are impossible to do much about and take a long time to heal.

He would go as hard as he could (and this kid is FAST) during some of the points. But once he tried to slow down and stop, he would hobble and have to walk it off. His serve lost a fair bit of velocity, too.

But here’s the thing: this 18-year-old is a baller.

Match point moves

Shang knew he was kind of in big trouble. He had the perspective to at least be able to laugh at his bad fortune. But he also wasn’t going to go down without at least a battle.

So he just started to try to fire winners, any time he saw an opening. He also barely missed a ball for the last 45 minutes of the match.

The funniest part of this untimely tumble was Zhang coming to the net and asking Shang – in English – “You okay, man?”

On the first match point, he decided to suddenly move way back into Thiem/Medvedev territory on the second-serve return, to give Zhang a different look. You never know; this can actually be effective and a double-fault RIGHT at that juncture would have been quite a gift.

Unfortunately, Shang sort of outsmarted himself and the return didn’t really get to the net.

On the second match point, he tried the opposite tack and moved right in. He was always thinking. And he was playing as if he were spending house money.

It just wasn’t quite enough.

Finally luck is on Zhang’s side

The 26-year-old had pretty awful luck in the qualifying at the Australian Open, when he ran into young American Ben Shelton in the first round.

Zhang was actually at No. 96 then; but it happened just a little too late for his ranking to count to get into the main draw. And then he ran into Shelton, who turned Court 14 at Melbourne Park into the Swamp (the home of the NCAA’s Florida Gators, which was his team until he turned pro this summer).

Late-night heartbreak for Zhang in Melbourne, at the hands of Ben Shelton.

Shelton won that one in the fifth-set match tiebreak. And went on to make a run to the quarterfinals. Zhang left, still winless at the ATP level on the season, and proceeded to lose in the first round of three more events.

(Shang did qualify at the Australian Open, taking care of veteran Fernando Verdasco on the same late night Shelton beat Zhang. And he won a round, too).

So this is a nice reset for Zhang, who was joined in the top 100 by countryman Wu Yibing a few weeks ago (Wu has a wild card into the main draw).

You just know Shang, who is near his career high ranking at the moment, at No. 171, wlll be joining them sooner rather than later.

Shang, a year ago at Indian Wells, shocked Francisco Cerundolo in the first round of qualifying when he was ranked outside the top 500.

When he got a wild card into the qualifying at Indian Wells a year ago, just turned 17, Shang qualified on a retirement in the final round, after beating Francisco Cerundolo in the first round (Cerundolo, who was No. 100 then but was in the top 25 by summer), had no idea what happened to him. This year, he was in on his own.

For Zhang, it will be only the second career main-draw match at a Masters 1000 level.

He’s from Shanghai. But he never received a wild card into anything other than the qualifying until 2019 (the last time it was held), when he had broken into the top 200. And then he got Hubert Hurkacz in the first round that year.

Zhang has never even competed in any Masters 1000 other than his “home” tournament.

So this will be new. He meets lucky loser Alexei Popyrin in the first round; the Aussie got in when Michael Mmoh withdrew.

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