Their paths to this point have differed widely, as do their current standings in the game. But Wu Di and Zhang Yuxuan have one thing in common, aside from their shared nationality – both will contest their first ever Grand Slam event at Australian Open 2013.
The Chinese pair were awarded wildcards into the main draw for next year’s tournament at Melbourne Park, the reward for winning the inaugural Asia-Pacific Australian Open Wildcard Play-off men’s and women’s singles events in late October.
The play-off, staged at the Tennis Academy of China in Nanjing, featured some of the best tennis talents in Asia, whose rankings were not quite high enough to ensure direct entry into the Australian Open main draw. It showcased players from China, India, Taiwan, Thailand and Japan.
Tennis Australia tournaments and competitions manager Alistair MacDonald described the event’s first staging as a resounding success.
“We had great support from players in the region and they felt that the event was a great initiative. The final was well attended with several hundred people completely filling the facility,” he said.
“The Australian Open is the Grand Slam of Asia-Pacific and by hosting such an event we are ... enhancing the status of the event in the Asia-Pacific region.”
Wu, the second-highest ranked Chinese player at world No.184, enjoyed a run through the draw that saw him upend top seed Yuichi Sugita of Japan and No.4 seed and compatriot Ze Zhang.
He capped a stellar week with victory over Thai No.3 seed Danai Udomchoke 7-6(1) 6-4 to secure his wildcard. The first set was a tight affair, with a tiebreak required to split the players. Wu jumped to a fast start, taking the first five points and securing the opening set.
“The first set was very important. I think too much about the wildcard at the start,” he reflected.
“Then in the tiebreak I played very relaxed and enjoyed the match. I am very happy that I have got this wildcard.”
The opportunity to play in the main draw at Australian Open 2013 is an incredibly exciting one for the 21-year-old, who has played just six matches at ATP level in 2012 and has never before even contested qualifying at a Grand Slam event.
He has garnered some experience at the top level, however, through his representation of China in the Davis Cup. In his seven tie appearances, he has faced Uzbek Denis Istomin (currently ranked world No.43) and top Aussie talents Marinko Matosevic and Bernard Tomic.
Yet having rarely played competitively outside of Asia, an appearance at Melbourne Park will be a big adjustment to make. He is currently preparing by taking part in the Chinese Nationals before he heads to Dijon, France, where he will continue training for the Australian summer.
Zhang, meanwhile, was an unknown quantity coming into Nanjing.
Ranked outside the top 400 prior to the event, she was forced to battle her way through qualifying before taking her place in the main draw of the wildcard play-off. After swatting aside two opponents in the qualifying event, Zhang set about replicating that form in the main draw.
And she did so with aplomb, most notably ousting top seed Kai-Chen Chang of Taiwan in the quarterfinals 2-6 6-4 6-1. She faced No.2 seed and compatriot Qiang Wang in the final and recorded a 6-4 6-2 win in one hour and 40 minutes, winning the final four games of the match.
“I am very excited [that] I can get into the Australian Open main draw to Australia,” Zhang said.
“I hope I can play well there. Today is a really tough match and Wang is a good player so I am very happy. I play better and better this year so I hope I can [continue to] get better.”
Perhaps her upset victory wasn’t that much of a surprise – Zhang’s remarkable year has seen her jump almost 800 places in the world rankings since January, during which she has built a win-loss record of 22-10 playing exclusively on the ITF circuit.
The 18-year-old is currently ranked No.416 in the world, and will find her trip to Melbourne Park a major step up in her tennis development. She has never played a WTA-level event, let alone a Grand Slam, and like Wu, has played predominantly within Asia during her fledgling career.
However small, she does have some experience competing in Australian conditions thanks to her appearances in the Burnie and Mildura Pro Tour events early 2012.
Many more players in future may have the chance to score the same exciting opportunities that have been afforded to Wu and Zhang, with MacDonald saying that Australian Open organisers were keen to further engage with the Asia-Pacific region and develop the wildcard play-off event.
“Ideally, over the coming years we would share the hosting of this event among cities and countries in the region,” he explained.
“I think the draw size will find a balance between giving players an opportunity to compete but also appreciating that they are coming off a long season, and that they want to play only a few quality matches in an attempt to qualify for the Australian Open.”