By Giri Nathan
Yibing Wu tends to make history in New York. At the 2017 US Open, 17-year-old Wu became the first boy from China ever to win a major title at the junior level. At the 2022 US Open, 22-year-old Wu became the first man from China in 63 years to win a match at a major. (Fu Chi Mei beat Ron Barnes in a first-round five-setter at Wimbledon 1959, if you’ll recall. Mei then lost in the second round to Torben Ulrich, father of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. The younger Ulrich gave up his professional tennis ambitions after moving from Denmark to Southern California and realizing he wasn’t even a top 10 player on his street. Decent career decision.)
But where were we… Yibing Wu, carrying Chinese men’s tennis into this millennium. He’d been the No. 1 junior in the world, had won a Challenger way back in 2017, and had even scraped a set off Kei Nishikori in 2018. But then, for a few years, Wu’s wunderkind trajectory was bent by ill fortune. He dealt with injuries to his elbow, back, shoulder, and wrist, eventually undergoing surgery in 2020 to have a piece of bone removed from his elbow. The pandemic restricted his ability to travel, and for two years he toiled only on the domestic circuit, where he was too good to be tested. Between March 2019 and January 2022, Wu did not participate in any international competitions.
Last year, then, was effectively a career reboot, Wu’s first normal season as an adult, and he didn’t dawdle. Over roughly three months, he ripped a digit off his world ranking, rising from No. 1,749 to No. 174. He won three Challenger titles and qualified for the main draw of the US Open, where he made the third round. That one I watched from an excellent seat that had been vacated by Spike Lee, who witnessed Serena Williams’ final professional tennis match but mysteriously didn’t stick around for the Yibing Wu–Daniil Medvedev showdown right after.
Okay, Spike, you didn’t miss much of a show: straight sets in Medvedev’s favor. But Wu, plainly overmatched, still impressed me with his crazed movement and baseline power. Everything about his tennis, from his footwork to his stroke production, bore this crackling, fast-forwarded athleticism. I wondered if he’d fill out some of the holes in his game—serve, touch, finishing points—and continue his advance up the rankings. Earlier this month, off the strength of his Challenger performance in Cleveland, Wu finally entered the top 100. “It’s just the beginning for me,” the 23-year-old said. “Hopefully I can achieve the top 30 this year.”
That might sound far-fetched, but this week in Dallas, for the first time, Wu won consecutive matches against opponents ranked inside the top 100. The second of those wins came at the expense of Denis Shapovalov, ranked No. 27 in the world, though possibly ranked No. 1 on a key metric called Fans’ Net Hair Loss. The 7–6(1), 6–4 result can be partially ascribed to the frustrating lapse in focus that has come to typify recent Shapo, but also partially ascribed to Wu’s brilliance on these speedy indoor courts. One of these 23-year-olds got the opportunity to live out life on tour as a buzzy prodigy; the other one is urgently making up for lost time. And if it’s a top 30 ranking Wu Yibing seeks, it’s got to feel good to notch that first top 30 win.
Above: Yibing Wu down in Dallas. (Getty)