Tennis player Zhizhen Zhang was born on October 16, 1996, in Shanghai, China. He became the first Chinese player to reach the quarter-finals of an ATP Masters 1000 event at the 2023 Mutua Madrid Open. Zhang also qualified for Wimbledon in 2021, becoming the first Chinese man to feature in the main draw during the Open Era. Achieving a career-high singles ranking of world No. 52 in June 2023, Zhang has claimed titles on both the ATP Challenger and ITF Futures Tour. His remarkable journey is only getting better, in July 2023, he achieved the status of the highest-ever ranked Chinese male tennis player, and in September 2023, he clinched victory at the Asian Games 2023, securing China’s first men’s singles gold medal in almost thirty years.
In DSCENE exclusive interview with Nikola Bajović, Zhizhen talks about highs and lows of his career, revealing insights into his strategies, challenges, and personal rituals. He discusses the mental resilience required in both training and competitive play, his unique approach to matches, and his meaningful interactions with fans worldwide. Reflecting on his achievements, including his success at the 2023 Rolex Shanghai Masters, Zhizhen shares his aspirations for the future and his message for aspiring tennis players and fans globally.
Read full interview + discover the session lensed by fashion photographer Elys Berroteran, and styled by Victor Lopez below:
Zhizhen, as a professional tennis player, the journey is filled with highs and lows. Can you share a moment in your career where you faced a significant challenge and how you overcame it to come out stronger?
This is a long journey. A tennis career is very long, and season is also long, and facing difficult moments is inevitable. You can’t be at your best throughout the entire year; it’s impossible. So, you need to deal with yourself, give yourself some space. You can’t always be pushing too hard. In challenging moments, take it a bit easy. On the other hand, when you experience good moments, keep pushing hard. That’s how we survive.
During intense training and competitions, what’s your go-to source of motivation that keeps you pushing yourself to the limits?
When it comes to competitions and matches, it’s easy. You just need to focus on one thing: beating the opponent in front of you. However, during training, it’s a bit different. You sometimes need to work on specific skills and give yourself space. You can’t push too hard because there are new things you need time to get used to. For the training part, you really need to identify your goals and work towards them.
Can you recount a match where you had to make on-the-spot decisions, and how did those decisions impact the outcome?
Let me think. Sometimes, I can’t pinpoint a specific moment because during a match, I usually follow the pre-planned strategy. It’s not about making decisions on the spot; it’s tough. In my style of tennis, decisions aren’t based on a couple of serves. I follow my plan, like consistently targeting an opponent’s forehand or backhand. I won’t change abruptly; I’ll adapt gradually based on how the match unfolds.
Away from the spotlight, are there any rituals or superstitions you follow before a big match? Something that fans might not know about but is a unique part of your routine?
I have a ritual of listening to songs from a particular singer that I like. Also, before a match, like everyone, I have my own routine – one unique to me is making a visit to the toilet before stepping onto the court.
Travel is a significant aspect of a tennis player’s life. What’s one destination on the ATP Tour that has left a lasting impression on you, either because of the tournament or the city itself?
Shanghai. I live there, and being my hometown, every tournament leaves a lasting impression on me.
As an athlete, you have a global fan base. How do you engage with your fans, and is there a memorable encounter or message from a fan that has stuck with you?
I’m surprised and grateful for the fans, especially those from around the world. In Madrid, I was astonished by the support from foreign fans. On court, it makes me happy, and I truly appreciate them. I engage with fans through Instagram, where they sometimes send messages, and I make sure to respond. I love them for their support.
Reflecting on your personal growth, both as a player and an individual, what’s one valuable lesson you’ve learned during your time on the professional circuit?
Not giving up, keeping going, and being patient. I can be a negative person at times, but in tennis, confidence is essential. It helps me push forward.
Tennis demands mental toughness. Can you share a moment where your mental strength played a decisive role in securing a victory, especially in a challenging or tight match?
There isn’t a specific scene, but in critical moments of a match, it’s crucial to forget about past mistakes and focus on what lies ahead. Dwelling on missed opportunities only hinders progress. Looking forward is key.
Outside of tennis, do you have a favorite book, movie, or form of entertainment that you turn to for inspiration or relaxation? How does it contribute to your mindset both on and off the court?
I love all movies, ok maybe not romantic comedies. I enjoy action movies, especially while traveling. It’s the only time I have to watch them.
At the 2023 Rolex Shanghai Masters you reached the third round, and became the first Chinese player to do so at his home tournament and to claim back to back wins at the home Masters 1000. How do you feel about the great achievements that go down in the history of sports?
I was genuinely surprised this year as my face was everywhere during the Shanghai Tournament. It was unexpected for me. I felt pressure since there were expectations for me to perform well. W the first and second rounds boosted my confidence. I performed well, and I’m content with what I achieved. Before this year, I hadn’t won a set in the Shanghai Masters. So, for myself, it’s a bit of a release, a genuine accomplishment. Winning three matches is significant progress for me, and I’m truly delighted. The support from the fans was incredible. I initially thought not many people would come to watch, but I played at the center court all the time. Special thanks to my old friends for watching and staying with me during the night sessions. It was a fantastic week.
Lastly, Zhizhen, as you look towards the future, what message or legacy do you hope to leave for aspiring tennis players and your fans around the world?
To my fans, thank you for your support. 2023 was an amazing year, and I’ll strive to be even better in 2024. The Olympic Games in 2024 are approaching, and I’ll do my best for our country.
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