MELBOURNE, Jan 13 (Reuters) - China is set to take another small step on the long march to becoming a tennis power when 21-year-old Wu Di meets Croatia’s Ivan Dodig in the first round of the Australian Open.
The 186th-ranked Wu, from the Yangtze river port of Wuhan, earned a wildcard to become the first Chinese man in the main draw of a grand slam since Mei Fu-Chi played at Wimbledon in 1959 in the era of Mao Zedong.
While Chinese women players have made major strides in recent years, Li Na capturing Asia’s first grand slam singles title at the French Open in 2011, the men have trailed far behind.
The pint-sized Wu said he hoped to do his bit for the lagging half of China’s 1.3 billion population as he battled the butterflies before his grand slam debut.
”Of course, I‘m nervous!“ Wu told Reuters at Melbourne Park on Sunday. ”It’s my first grand slam and I‘m the first (Chinese) man in the professional era to play, so there’s certainly some nerves.
“But it’s part of a process. I‘m really excited to be the first man but just being here isn’t my goal - I actually want to win.”
Just one win would suffice for Wu, who has modest ambitions in his grand slam debut but has set himself a goal of breaking into the top 100 by the end of the year.
Since joining forces last year with Frenchman David Moreau, his first official coach, Wu’s ranking has improved from outside the top 400 over the past year.
His new dedication to the game has been noted by fellow Wuhan native and friend Li.
“Now that he’s got this coach he has someone that can be behind him pushing him forward,” Li told reporters on Sunday.
“When talking to him recently I get the feeling that he finally knows what he wants. I think this is quite important.”
Wu in turn lavished praise on tattooed 30-year-old Li, who became China’s first grand slam finalist at the 2011 Australian Open and the country’s first top 10 player.
”We’re often in touch with each other,“ said Wu, wearing short, spiky hair and an impish grin. ”She’s been the biggest help in my career so I‘m really thankful to her.
“And after all she’s the first (Chinese) grand slam winner so she’s had a big influence on me.”
The only other Chinese man in the top 200 is 157th-ranked Zhang Ze, and Li has often criticised the country’s men for not working as hard as their female counterparts for success.
Wu pleaded guilty during a directionless phase of his fledgling career.
“Actually my improvement hasn’t been all that fast. I made the top 300 when I was 18, but there was a year there when I was a little bit crazy,” he said.
“I was a also a bit lazy so I wasted a bit of time there. I think had I worked as hard then as I had today, my ranking would be even better.”
Wu rates his technique as sound and court speed as one of his strengths, but describes his serve as a weakness.
At 5ft-8in (1.73 metres), he also cannot help but feel the gap between himself and the more imposing titans of the men’s game.
“Most of the top players are 1.90 or 1.85 or so like (Roger) Federer and (Rafa) Nadal. Being tall is important but it’s not the most important thing,” he said.
“Being short is a bit of raw deal, but what can you do? I’ve been given this body by the heavens so I’ll accept it.”