Q&A: 2022 Wimbledon Finalist Michael Zheng
It’s an Eastern hat trick! When Michael Zheng, of Montville, N.J., reached the boys’ singles championship match at Wimbledon earlier this month, it marked the third time in the last three years that a player from the section—and more specifically, from the Garden State—contested a junior singles final at the vaunted Grand Slam. (Alexa Noel, of Summit, played for the girls’ title in 2019, and Samir Banerjee, of Basking Ridge, lifted the boys’ trophy at the event in 2021.)
Zheng had a particularly interesting run to Championship Sunday. En route to the final, the unseeded 18-year-old faced a previous doubles partner in the third round, his Wimbledon doubles partner in the quarterfinals, and then produced perhaps the biggest upset of the tournament when he defeated No. 10 seed Martin Landaluce in the semis. Landaluce had been riding a 15-match win streak, having captured two straight ITF junior titles on grass coming into the event. (Zheng would ultimately fall to Croatia's Mili Poljicak in two hard-fought sets that both reached a tiebreak.) We talked to Zheng about his big week, his development as a player—and why New Jersey is a great training ground for the fresh lawns at the All England Club.
Congratulations on an incredible result! Not many people can say they are a Wimbledon finalist. How does it feel about a week later?
Zheng: Yeah, it’s amazing. Obviously after the final I was a little bit disappointed, because I was so close. But now looking back at it, it was a great run. I didn’t really have that many expectations coming in. It was also my first time getting to play in front of so many people, and I had people supporting me back home, too. So it was an unbelievable experience.
Juniors don’t generally get to play a ton of tournaments on grass. You did win several matches at a tournament in Roehampton the week prior. How were you feeling about the surface leading into the event?
Zheng: I didn’t have much experience [on grass] at all. [At Roehampton] I had a couple wins over good players, but it was still a tough adjustment. I lost pretty badly in the third round. I didn’t really have that much confidence coming into Wimbledon. I thought I would win one or two rounds at best. But the more I played, the more confident I was with my game.
Was there a moment during the tournament where everything clicked?
Zheng: I think it happened during a practice session. I do think my game suits grass very well. I hit a flatter ball, I have a pretty big serve, I can come into the net. But after Roehampton, I lost a little bit of confidence…I was losing a lot of practice sets. Then in a practice session, I just felt it. It was like, “Yep, this is the way I should be playing.”
What would you say was your most challenging match en route to the final?
Zheng: For sure, the semifinals. Martin [Landaluce] had been on a 15-match win streak. He came in on fire. I knew I had to play my A game. We both played a heck of a match. I think we ended up winning the same amount of points, so it really was just a couple points here or there.
That battle dramatically culminated in a 10-point tiebreaker at 6-all in the third set, which is a new rule at Wimbledon this year. How did you feel going into that?
Zheng: Yeah, they just implemented that at the slams. But I’ve played a lot of super breakers in [Eastern events] and other qualifying tournaments, so it wasn’t anything new for me. I just focused on one point at a time. I was relieved when I finally took it!
What’s your ultimate takeaway from making such a deep run?
Zheng: It shows me that I can be right up there with some of the best players in the world. Of course, I don’t want to be complacent. I still have a couple big tournaments coming up, and I want to focus on improving some of the weak areas in my game.
You’re the third junior from New Jersey in three years to make a singles final at the All England Club. What is it about the Garden State at this Grand Slam?
Zheng: I guess on the East Coast we pretty much grow up playing indoors, which is similar to the faster, lower-bouncing grass courts at Wimbledon. So that’s a big factor. Then at the same time, there’s just a solid group of guys here…and a good culture where everybody’s competing to improve. Everyone’s pushing each other, and that’s when people start to rise. And obviously once Samir won last year, he gave us all a lot of confidence. It just showed us we’re right there.
What can you tell us about your journey in the sport over the years? What were the steps you took to get to this level?
Zheng: I was at a program at the National Tennis Center [in Flushing, Queens] for about two years. That was a tough commute since we’re in New Jersey. It was about an hour-and-a-half with traffic. I used to carpool with another kid, but he stopped going. I ended up taking a bus and a subway to get there.
Wow. That’s dedication! Now you train a little bit closer to home at Centercourt Tennis and have worked with Adrian Contreras for about five years. How has he helped your game in that time?
Zheng: Adrian is a very meticulous guy. He’s helped to develop my forehand, which is one of the biggest strengths of my game. Then he’s also just instilled a more aggressive mentality in me where I'm looking to come to the net, because he was a serve-and-volleyer growing up. He's very passionate. It's all about intensity, which I think is one of the most important things for aspiring players looking for a program. I mean, he’s helped me go from a good player to a player who’s competitive nationally and internationally.
How have your parents have supported you as you've made these strides as a player over the years?
Zheng: I’ve always been grateful for my parents. My dad got me started in tennis and he is definitely one of the most passionate guys, always pushing me to be better. He’s one of the most influential people in my life. My mom has always been the one who has supported me more outside of tennis, though she’s starting to get into it. I think it’s a good dynamic.
You first picked up a racquet around age six when your dad brought you to a court at a high school to play. Now, in 2022, you’ve won an ITF junior title (in Barranquilla, Colombia) and reached a final at Wimbledon. What’s your advice to young juniors in the section who want to eventually get to your level one day?
Zheng: If you want it bad enough, you’ll find a way. It’s not only about working hard, but about working smart. You need to find a good coach, a good mentor. And then I think intensity is one of the most important things. Look for intensity when you’re starting out and get into the more technical stuff later. If you work hard, work smart and stick with it, you might not reach No. 1 in the world, but you’ll reach somewhere in tennis.
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