On the second day of China’s Davis Cup tie in February, Wei Jang made an unexpected decision for the fourth rubber. His team was ahead at that stage, leading 2-1 courtesy the surprise win in the doubles match. Another win would seal the tie, but that would have to come against the Kiwis’ top singles player Jose Statham, who was unbeaten in the tie.
The captain had two experienced players in his squad to pick from, but instead choose the third option — 18-year-old Yibing ‘Jason’ Wu. This was Wu’s second Davis Cup match. A year earlier, he won a three-hour-50-minute five-setter against debutant Jason Jung of Chinese Taipei. In Statham, the teenager was up against a veteran of 29 ties in a crucial rubber.
But Wu wasn’t one to be overawed by the setting. Months earlier, he became the first ever Chinese player to win a junior Grand Slam, claiming the singles and doubles titles at the US Open in September. A week later, he turned professional and won the $75,000 Shanghai Challenger. He wouldn’t fail against Statham, securing the tie for China with a three-set win. At the Tianjin Tennis Center in February, China put forth its secret weapon. At the same venue this Friday, the Indian team may come up against that revelation. The teenager, ranked 332 in the world, is still far from the top guns of tennis, but not quite under the radar.
“He’s everything you want in a male tennis player nowadays: big serve, big forehand, big strong game,” former India Davis Cupper Karan Rastogi, who now resides in Hong Kong, told The Indian Express. “I played him in a match two years ago. He wasn’t afraid to play his shots. He would step in and try and hit winners. And he hits the ball very hard.”
That skill-set was appreciated when he served as hitting partner for the top players at the ATP Finals in London last year. So much so that eventual champion Grigor Dimitrov invited him for an off-season training session in Monaco, after which he travelled to Barcelona to train with world no 23 Albert Ramos-Vinolas.
The ATP meanwhile, describes his game: “quick on his feet, solid on the forehand wing, and generates exceptional racquet head speed on his backhand, a shot that cuts through the court and changes direction with ease.” Even before the win at Flushing Meadows though, he’d been creating waves at home, where no male player has scaled the heights of a Grand Slam. Now he’s been pipped to be the ‘next Li Na.’
He too had been inspired by the two-time women’s major winner. “I think that it’s the best thing (ever). She’s the first one to give us hope, real hope that young players can get to that level,” he had told the ATP. But early in his childhood, tennis wasn’t part of the plan.
Bucking the trend
When he was four, his mother took him to play badminton, only for the high net to be a barrier that would lead the Hangzhou-native to the tennis courts nearby.
So instead of joining the growing bandwagon of Chinese shuttlers that go on to become world-beaters, he became a path-breaking in tennis. World-wide, his stock grew sharply after his first Challenger title — which came in his first tournament as a pro – but he was already highly rated in the far east.
“He’s very creative in the court. He can do things you don’t see in other players,” his coach Nahum Garcia Sanchez told the Associated Press. “In a moment, he can change the rhythm, he can (play) a shot that I do not expect. He reminds me of Gael Monfils in a way, but more aggressive.”
And he’s been backing that up with results as well. The junior major titles, the junior world no 1 rank, the Challenger have already made the teenager an idol.
“Here, people have seen him grow up, seen what he’s doing and noticed the gradual improvement,” says Rastogi. “The younger players from this region who are trying to break the mould and do well in singles look at him as a role model.”
For the second round zonal Davis Cup tie against India this week, the youngster is China’s third highest ranked player behind 27-year-old Ze Zhang (247) and 26-year-old Di Wu (248).
They’re veterans compared to Wu, who have a single Challenger title each to their names. But Wu is expected to do much better than the 148 high rank Zhang reached, and the 140 Di had reached in 2016.
On paper, India is the stronger team with players, save for Prajnesh Gunneswaran (263), ranked higher than the five from China. But for the fourth time the two nations meet, the hosts have a secret weapon in their ranks, one that will not stay hidden for long.