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At the end of 2022, Bai Zhuoxuan was ranked outside the Top 300 and was asking three-time major finalist Ons Jabeur for photos at an ITF Challenger event. By the summer of 2023, Bai was competing against Jabeur in the second round of Wimbledon.
“If back then someone told me that I would face [Jabeur] on Court 1 at Wimbledon seven months later, I wouldn’t believe it, and I would think you were joking,” Bai told wtatennis.com in an interview last week.
It’s no joke. This past season was a whirlwind for the 21-year-old from China, who has established herself as a name to watch as the tour heads into the new year.
A former Top 10 junior, Bai hit numerous milestones on her way to a Top 100 year-end finish in her breakthrough season. Here is a breakdown from the rising star about her season, her aspirations and her winding road alongside Jabeur:
WTA: At the start of 2023, what were your goals? Did you believe you’d rise as much as you have?
Bai Zhuoxuan: At the beginning of 2023, my goal was to be in the Top 100. I believed that I could do it, otherwise I wouldn’t have set such a goal. This season went quite well, and I’m happy with my overall performance.
WTA: How did it feel achieving milestones such as playing your first WTA main draw in Strasbourg, qualifying and winning your first Slam match at Wimbledon and breaking into the Top 100 last month?
Bai: This is a very important year of my career. … I started the season ranked outside the Top 300 and needed to move up the rankings as quickly as possible to prove that I have the game and potential. At the end of the day, you just have to let the result speak for itself.
Actually, I kind of expected it, believed that I could make it. In terms of confidence, this year is a big boost for me. There are a lot of firsts that I’ve been working very hard to achieve, and only with these can you take further steps.
WTA: You spent nearly two years off the tour due to the pandemic. What were the challenges of coming back and having to start in $15,000 ITF Challenger events again?
Bai: It was really difficult during the pandemic, because most of the players were not able to travel abroad, including me. I stayed in China for a long time mainly training, but also got a chance to play some domestic tournaments, such as the CTA Tour. The desire to compete had always been there — the CTA Tour created a platform for me to compete against other players, to show my game and see where my level was. It was a really good experience, especially during those two years.
It was definitely not easy to come back on tour and start from scratch. You had to build up the ranking points. But I believed if I had the game, I would fight my way up again, it’s just a matter of time.
WTA: What aspects of your game do you feel you most improved in 2023?
Bai: [My] serve. This is the biggest change in technique for me this year, because a strong serve is a useful weapon in many matches. Another thing is my return. In the past, I used to pay more attention to groundstrokes, while my serve and return were relatively weak. Now I think both have improved a lot.
I feel more like a professional player, with everything in a more professionalized way, which is different from my junior years. I think that’s probably the biggest change I’ve made in the last two years, developing from junior to pro tennis. From 2022 to 2023, I’ve also become more mature mentally.
WTA: Who do you want to play most now that you’re on the WTA Tour?
Bai: I would love to play Ons Jabeur again if I have a chance, because I was nervous and could have done better at Wimbledon. Playing her again might feel different and I can learn more with all the experience.
I also want to play Iga Swiatek, because she’s one of the best and so dominant, especially on clay. I’m just curious to find out how strong she is.
WTA: Can you talk about meeting Jabeur at a $25,000 ITF Challenger event in Monastir, Tunisia last year, then playing her again on No.1 Court at Wimbledon?
Bai: When I ran into her [in Monastir]I asked her to take a photo with me. If back then someone told me that I would face her on Court 1 at Wimbledon seven months later, I wouldn’t believe it and I would think you were joking. Because I was playing 25K’s while she was in Grand Slam finals.
I used to think I was far from the Grand Slams, but this experience made me feel for the first time that it’s actually quite close, a place I could reach if I work really hard. That match means a lot to me.
She is very friendly, very easy-going. All the players there went to her, and she basically satisfied everyone. I plucked up the courage to ask for a photo. She was with her team and said no problem, then her coach took a picture of us.
WTA: What match are you most proud of winning or you learned the most from in 2023?
Bai: I would definitely pick the second-round match of qualifying at Wimbledon [where Bai defeated Maria Lourdes Carle 2-6, 6-3, 7-6(5) en route to the main draw]. It was a tough battle which I took in a third-set tiebreak, a very long match full of ups and downs. I suffered from leg cramps at 5-6 in the third set, so it’s not easy to win in that situation.
If I had lost, my ranking might not have risen so fast, and I would have had to wait until the China swing or after for it to climb. It gave me a lot of confidence and experience at the big stage.
WTA: What are your goals in 2024?
Bai: I have some expectations for the Australian Open. I reached the semifinals in the junior event before the pandemic and personally love to play there. It’s the first Grand Slam of the season. I hope I can go further, maybe try to reach the third round.
In terms of rankings, now that I’m inside the Top 100, I wish I could carry the momentum and move up higher. I won’t give you a specific number, because I’m afraid that I might jinx it by saying it out loud, so I’ll just leave it there (laughs). This is my current goal.
WTA: Which players were your favorites to watch growing up?
Bai: Growing up I watched Li Na a lot. She made history and proved that Chinese and Asian players could also win a Grand Slam and have a place in the world of tennis. She’s such an inspiration to all of us. I also enjoyed watching Zheng Jie when I was very young. Now it’s probably the top players like Swiatek, Sabalenka, Jabeur and Rybakina.
On the ATP side, I’m always a fan of Rafael Nadal. I admire his fighting spirit and he is such a great tennis player. I also watch some young guns like Sinner and Alcaraz.
WTA: What songs are on your playlist right now?
Bai: My playlist is quite simple. Most are Chinese songs and nearly two-thirds of them are from my favorite singer Jay Chou.
WTA: If you had to show a visitor around a town you’re familiar with, where would you take them and what would you show them?
Bai: [In] my hometown Luoyang, I would recommend them to visit some famous tourist attractions such as Longmen Grottoes, White Horse Temple and Laojun Mountain. As for food, maybe some local noodle dishes and beef soup.
Hocky Hao contributed to this report.