BEIJING -- Chinese tennis is in the midst of what is inarguably its greatest collective tennis season.
Zheng Qinwen and Zhu Lin both notched career-best second-week Grand Slam runs (US Open quarterfinals and Australian Open fourth round respectively). For the first time in more than 15 years, Chinese players have won three titles in a single season, with Zheng Qinwen taking Palermo, Zhu Lin winning Hua Hin, and Wang Xiyu breaking through in Guangzhou.
China also produced another Grand Slam champion, with Wang Xinyu winning the French Open doubles title with Hsieh Su-Wei.
Across the aisle on the ATP Tour, Chinese men continue to chart new territory. Shang Juncheng, 18, sat atop the junior rankings two years ago. Just last year, Zhang Zhizhen became the first man from China to rank in the ATP's Top 100.
This year, three Chinese men competed in the main draw at a Slam for the first time in the Open Era, at the Australian Open. In the spring, Wu Yibing became China's first ATP champion by winning Dallas. Then, this summer, Zhang Zhizhen set the mark as the highest ranked Chinese player, hitting a career-high at No.52 in July.
"[Two years ago], I would say we are more thinking try to break top hundred, that's our goal, the goal you have step by step," Zhang Zhizhen said at the US Open.
"But that moment I don't think I would say two years after, we had a tour-level champion, tour-level title, then two [Slam] third round. In that moment, two years ago if you tell me this, I wouldn't believe it."
Through it all, the growing diversity of game styles among the player body has been notable. Historically, China's national system produced baseline players known for their flat, aggressive, baseline game. But with more exposure to the global game, the current generation has eviscerated the idea of a singular, homogenous style.
From Zheng Qinwen's heavy topspin to Zhu Lin's crafty angles, Chinese players are breaking new ground in how they express themselves on the court.
From Zhu Lin's perspective, the evolution was borne of necessity. North-South tennis, which was the foundation of her own game, can no longer succeed in the current era.
"If you play just one speed, it's really hard to play all these girls because of different surfaces, different balls, different kind of players," she said.
"You have to play everything. You have to play spin and flat. You have to know what kind of point you have to play. Do I play aggressive this point? Or do I play spin? You have to be able to do everything."
China's highest-ranked player, Zheng Qinwen, embodies precisely how far Chinese tennis has come. Zheng has always had an aggressive mindset, but it wasn't until she grew into her body that she was able to physically play the heavy baseline game she currently possesses.
"Obviously, 15 years ago in China, the tennis was just beginning," Zheng said, "so we don't have much opportunity to improve our system of coaching.
"Now after 15 years, we know more the world, we know how everybody is playing, we try a lot of different coaches to really improve our games. So all of us are starting to have more knowledge about tennis."
Seeing the world and bringing in experienced coaches to hone their games is a blueprint first put into relief by Li Na. In Michael Mortensen and Carlos Rodriguez, Li brought in European coaches to help her expand her game. Under their tutelage, Li's flat game style took on more spin and angles. Her movement and physicality also improved under her German fitness coach, Alex Stober. The result was two Grand Slam titles and a career-high ranking at No.2.
"When you are a kid you don't have too much power, so if you want to win a match you have to run and hit the ball back," Zheng Qinwen said. "But when I became a teenager, the coaches taught me how to hit more spin on the ball because that is how champions play. So I tried to develop more the game.
"Of course, you need to play more flat sometimes. To be a great tennis player you have to have all of it, not only spin, not only flat, but to be complete."
Zheng Qinwen saw her game flourish once she relocated to Barcelona and brought on Pere Riba, who helped coach Coco Gauff to her US Open title. Earlier this year, Wang Xiyu found good success with her partnership with Nigel Sears. Wang Xinyu trained at Novak Djokovic's club in Belgrade during Covid and worked with Thomas Hogstedt.
"It's a good thing to have more options," Wang Xinyu said, referring to the development of her game. "Before, I had only one option: power.
"Sometimes it's a learning process. At the beginning, you have to make decisions and not every time you make the right one. It's just learning each time."
The success of China's men and women has led to collective inspiration up and down the rankings. Wang Yafan, 29, won 38 of her last 42 matches across all levels this summer to get back in the Top 100. She won the biggest title of her career, at the WTA 125 event in Stanford, then stunned seventh seed Caroline Garcia at the US Open.
"Sometimes one player plays good and another thinks I can do it," Wang Yafan said. "Then two players play good and another says maybe I can also. I think when your friend wins a match you can also get confidence in your tennis."
Now the future looks as bright as it has ever been for Chinese tennis. Both Zhang Zhizhen and Zheng Qinwen romped to a golden sweep of the Asian Games two weeks ago.
"In the future, Chinese players will just be better and better," Zheng Qinwen said. "I hope the future of tennis is not only dominated by Europe. I hope Asia, China will also be part of it."