Class-act Shang signals huge potential with breakthrough win

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Shang Juncheng of China returns the ball during the boys' singles quarterfinal match between Shang Juncheng of China and Sean Cuenin of France at the French Open tennis tournament at Roland Garros in Paris, France, June 10, 2021. (Photo by Aurelien Morissard/Xinhua)

Shang Juncheng showed he's a real class act-with or without a racket in his hand-to cap another great week for Chinese tennis.

After becoming the first male Chinese mainland player to reach the junior world No 1 spot late last year, 17-year-old Shang on Sunday announced himself in the adult ranks by claiming his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title with a straight-sets victory over Emilio Gomez of Ecuador in Lexington, Kentucky.

Earning 80 points for the breakthrough triumph on the entry-level ATP circuit, Beijing native Shang has ascended to a career-high singles ranking of No 241 this week. He is currently the only player aged under 19 within the world's top 250 and the youngest Challenger winner in two years since Spain's world No 4 ace Carlos Alcaraz claimed his first in August 2020.

As the only Chinese mainlander to reach this level at his age, Shang is making historic leaps for Chinese men's tennis. The level-headed teen sensation, however, is keen to play down his feats.

"Coming to Lexington I had no expectations of any kind even though I felt quite confident after a solid training program," Shang said after beating Gomez, 6-4, 6-4, in one hour and 52 minutes.

"I am extremely proud of how I conducted myself all week and being able to stay focused, calm and resilient to cope with difficult moments, fatigue or some controversial umpire calls," said Shang.

Kind intervention

As well as showcasing his massive potential, Shang also won over new fans when he helped out a heat-stricken ball kid during his first-round encounter against local player Stefan Dostanic.

After noticing the boy was struggling with the scorching weather, Shang approached him to check on his condition and then carried him over to the sidelines into the shade, gave him a bottle of water and placed an ice pack behind his head until staff arrived to help.

"I turned around to ask for the ball. When the ball kid gave me the ball, he looked like he was unable to stand," Shang explained. "I asked him, 'How are you?' and he said, 'I don't feel good.' He staggered over and I felt like he was going to faint right away. I just instinctually did everything I could do."

Bryan Fenley, a commentator with Fox Sports Radio, tweeted after Shang's three-set win over Dostanic: "The world needs more people like Jerry Shang."

With the successes piling up, Shang is likely to extend his cooperation with Chilean legend Marcelo Rios, a former world No 1 player.

"I practiced a few days under the watch of Marcelo before I came here and it turned out to be a very beneficial experience for me," Shang said of his work with Rios, who became the first South American to reach the top ranking in March 1998.

"Marcelo has encouraged me to be more confident by acknowledging a lot of my strategies and thoughts. His presence in my team helped me stay composed. Without such a top guy offering me tips, it probably would be much harder and slower to figure out things on the court."

Although nothing is official yet, Rios had previously stated that Shang's promising talent made a long-term linkup very appealing.

China's top-ranked man Zhang Zhizhen was also celebrating on Sunday after winning his third career title on the Challenger circuit in Cordenons, Italy.

Riding the momentum of deep runs at his five previous Challenger events, Zhang overcame a first-set blip in the final to prevail against local favorite Andrea Vavassori 2-6,7-6(5), 6-3, in three hours. The victory was Zhang's first overseas Challenger title and lifted him to No 161 in the rankings. Zhang's previous top ranking of No 136 is an all-time best for male Chinese mainland players, achieved in February 2020.

"I thought maybe I would have to return on Monday after learning that I would play a tough opening-round opponent (No 132 Pavel Kotov)," Zhang said with a smile.

"But after overcoming the first-round challenge, I just played better and now I can really return on Monday (a week later)."

Zhang put his recent upturn to matching his renowned elite-level power-hitting with a renewed mental fortitude.

"I've experienced a lot of ups and downs this week-a rain delay, a lighting failure on the court and a dip in form. Yet I hung in there and fought through it all," said the 25-year-old Shanghai native.

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