Wu finally cracks clay to continue inexorable rise

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The resurgence of Chinese men's tennis continued apace on Wednesday as Wu Yibing stunned Frenchman Richard Gasquet at the Italian Open.

Despite being overwhelmed by the three-time Grand Slam semifinalist in the first set, Wu displayed impressive patience and controlled aggression to triumph 3-6, 6-3, 6-3, in one hour and 55 minutes at the top-flight ATP Masters 1000 tournament in Rome.

The victory over the 36-year-old Gasquet was Wu's first on clay on the ATP Tour; earlier last month, the 23-year-old's weaknesses on the surface were exposed in opening-round exits in Madrid and Barcelona.

The former US Open boys' champion will next face No 24 seed Francisco Cerundolo of Argentina in the second round on Friday.

Wu, China's top-ranked male player at No 57 in the world, attributed his breakthrough in Rome to a weeklong rest at home after spending almost a year and a half traveling around the world to compete.

"I think it's been a really good process. I was not feeling well, playingwise, in Madrid. After Madrid I took a week off and (went) back home…back there I chilled out with my friends and my family for five days. I flew back on Friday. I am glad I made it here with my team and played aggressive tennis on clay," Wu, a native of Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, said in English during his post-match interview.

"I am really excited to secure my first ATP win on clay … It's really nice to come back to the tour and start again with a win," added Wu, who in February became the first Chinese to claim an ATP Tour singles title by winning the Dallas Open in Texas.

Renowned for his elegant ground strokes throughout a career that has yielded 16 ATP singles titles, former world No 7 Gasquet initially looked comfortable on one of his preferred surfaces. However, Wu stepped up his game in the second set by returning Gasquet's forehand topspin shots more aggressively and attacking more with his own backhand cross shots to dictate the play.

"I wasn't patient enough in the first set, falling into his rhythm. I made adjustments in the following two sets to attack his serve more while trying to keep my own serves very solid. That's the key for the win today," said Wu, whose fast-paced style is best suited to hard courts.

Wu's Rome triumph follows the encouraging progress of his compatriot Zhang Zhizhen, who upset a number of much higher-ranked opponents last week on Madrid's clay courts to become the first Chinese to reach the quarterfinals of an ATP Masters event.

Last year, Zhang and Wu became the first and second Chinese mainland players respectively to crack the ATP's top 100. And with their upward trajectory continuing in 2023, expectations are growing that the Chinese men's game may eventually emulate the success enjoyed by the country's female players.

In an additional to boost to Chinese men's tennis, the ATP recently confirmed that all of its China-based tournaments, including the upgraded Rolex Shanghai Masters, will return this fall after a three-year hiatus due to COVID-19.

Andy ousted

Meanwhile, Fabio Fognini edged fellow 35-year-old Andy Murray in a nearly three-hour battle in Rome on Wednesday.

Given a wild-card entry after a month out with an injured foot, Fognini triumphed 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 on Campo Centrale.

Murray won an ATP Challenger event in southern France over the weekend, but Fognini's crafty shot-making proved the difference. The Italian's drop-shot winners were so clinical that Murray didn't even attempt to run them down.

Murray was also left fuming by a line call late in the first set, which gave Fognini a 5-3 advantage. Murray pointed to the mark on the red clay and protested to the line judge: "How can you see that ball from there being in? How is it possible? You know you got that wrong."

After the match was over, Murray had more words for the chair umpire, while Fognini wrote on a camera lens, "It's not over."

Another veteran to advance was Switzerland's Stan Wawrinka, who wasted little time securing a 6-2, 6-4 win over Ilya Ivashka of Belarus.

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