18-year-old plays first Tour event in homeland this week in Zhuhai

With Chinese men’s tennis already having made groundbreaking strides in 2023, is Shang Juncheng the one to take it into overdrive?

The #NextGenATP talent is ready and willing to build on the achievements of his ATP Tour colleagues Wu Yibing and Zhang Zhizhen, not to mention the host of Hologic WTA Tour stars who have flown the flag over the years for the second most populous country on Earth.

“I think it's definitely a really cool thing for me,” Shang told ATPTour.com last month when asked about the current hype surrounding Chinese men’s tennis. “I think it's a good pressure to have for me and it's obviously a lot of motivation for me to push through and do better every day.”

In February, Wu won in Dallas to become the first Chinese ATP Tour titlist in history. In July, Zhang rose to No. 52 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, the highest position ever held by anyone from the East Asian country. Now looking to help the pair establish a Chinese dynasty in the Top 100 is Shang, who reached the second round as a 17-year-old qualifier at January’s Australian Open.

“I think I am the kind of player that deals with pressure pretty well in important moments,” said Shang, who turned 18 in February before rising to a career-high World No. 149 in July. “So I'd say [the hype about Chinese tennis] never really bothered me, other than pushing me through the hard practices and the tough matches.

“Our Chinese fans have an unbelievable energy everywhere. Even in New York [at the US Open], I felt like I was playing at home. So that was just very helpful for me instead of a lot of pressure.”

In Wu and Zhang, Shang has two experienced mentors to emulate. Despite being a newcomer as their colleague on the ATP Tour, the 18-year-old has memories with both dating back years.

“We actually have the same name,” said Shang of the 26-year-old Zhang. “We're both Jerry. So I call him Big Jerry, he calls me Little Jerry. I met him maybe when I was nine or 10 years old. I remember him being very friendly to me. He was an upcoming star in China. He was very young, I think it was at the China Open in Beijing and I thought he was super fun. Then a couple of years later, here we are playing together on Tour. So I find that pretty cool.

“With Wu, I don't remember the first time I met him. I think I was watching him play a junior tournament in China. Everybody knows him as the laser forehand. He's got probably one of the biggest forehands on Tour and that's how I remember it watching him.

“I think we got a picture together, right before he was going to play in the China Open. So that was pretty cool to me when I was nine years old.”

Shang’s admiration for the achievements of his elder colleagues has only been heightened by their willingness to help him navigate life on the professional tennis circuit.

“I'm a lot younger than them and for sure they're more experienced, so I think I can learn from them and then learn from their mistakes, so I wouldn't make the same mistake," explained Shang. “I think that's something big, and they've been helping me too on that.”

This week at the Huafa Properties Zhuhai Championships, Shang will compete in his maiden tour-level event in China. Currently 17th in the Pepperstone ATP Race To Jeddah, it represents an opportunity for the 18-year-old to boost his hopes of qualifying for the Next Gen ATP Finals. For inspiration, Shang may turn to Chinese tennis royalty as he looks to make his mark in front of home fans eager to take in their first ATP Tour action since 2019.

“Definitely Li Na was an inspiration to all the Chinese players that are playing tennis right now,” said Shang of the former WTA World No. 2 and two-time major champion. “Seeing her win Grand Slams was something that we all dream about, and I think it's very inspiring. Also seeing the players now. A lot of players, they're doing well, especially on the women's side, and then we have two guys in the Top 100. That's definitely a big motivation for me.”

For Shang, childhood memories of Li’s escapades still drive his desire to become the next great success story of Chinese tennis.

“When she started playing professional tennis, I was probably not born yet,” said Shang. “Just watching her play since I was a little kid was so fun, especially seeing someone from my own country play tennis on the biggest stage in the world. I always dreamed that I could do the same thing.”

Shang also credits Zhang Shuai, a three-time WTA singles and 13-time doubles titlist, as an inspiration. She has even offered Shang advice to help him counter some of the big hitters he comes up against on the circuit.

“Obviously, people say women's and men's tennis is different, but I see it as all tennis, and I think we should all learn from each other,” said Shang. “It’s important, especially, we speak the same language. So let's say on the return of serve. Most players, they're stronger than me right now, like [it is for] Shuai. She says, 'you just have to use their own power and then use it against them'. And that's how you succeed with the bigger guys.”

So as he steps out in Zhuhai to compete, will the possibility that he is already inspiring the next big thing in Chinese tennis be in the back of Shang’s mind? Not just yet. The 18-year-old is first focussed on cementing a legacy to match his own tennis heroes.

“I don't see it that way, because it is my first time playing there, it's obviously huge for me," said Shang. "I've never played in front of a home crowd. Zhuhai [will be] the first 250 main draw that I'll play, instead of starting in qualies, so I'm just very excited about that. Hopefully I can inspire some kids, but the main goal is just to play good tennis and focus on myself.”