Youth prevailed over experience when 16-year-old Shang Juncheng of China, the No. 1 junior player in the world, defeated No. 3 seed Ricardo Rodriguez, a 28-year-old tour veteran from Venezuela, to capture the $15,000 Mardy Fish Children’s Foundation Tennis Championships title with a 7-6 (6), 6-4 win on Sunday.
The victory at The Boulevard Tennis Club marked the third pro title for the Chinese teen at an International Tennis Federation (ITF) World Tennis Tour event, which is also part of the U.S. Tennis Association Pro Circuit tournament.
Shang, who currently ranks No. 1008 on the ATP computer, impressively won his first pro event at a $15,000 event in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and again at the same level event in Naples, Florida just last week. He will move inside the top 900 in the world by earning 10 ATP singles ranking points with the tournament victory.
“It feels really good for me,” Shang said after victory. “I’m really happy especially these last two weeks which have been back-to-back wins. It’s really special for me to do in the pros. I’m playing really confident the last two weeks. I’m not thinking so much about the shots but just really going for it. And I’m really relaxed and finding a rhythm in my matches.”
Watch Shang’s post-match presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YlqqP8-BaB8
The No. 613 ranked Rodriguez credited his opponent for a match well played.
“I think the key of the match was he was better than me at the important points,” Rodriguez said. “I had a set point in the first set, and I had a few break points, and he played them all well.
“Honestly, I have no regrets because generally I played a very professional match today that didn’t go my way.”
Watch Rodriguez’s post-match presentation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IHrM9vQX9qE
The Beijing native, who goes by the name Jerry, lives with his father in the United States for the past five years, and currently trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Shang says he comes by his athletic prowess from his parents, who were both international sports stars in their sport of choice.
His father, Shang Yi, who sat court side watching the teen win the Vero Beach title, was a pro soccer midfielder who played for Beijing Guoan for most of his career. The elder Shang did play internationally – for Xerex in Spain – during the 2003-04 season. His most notable achievement in Spain was scoring a goal against Cadiz CF, a rival team of Xerex.
After retiring from soccer, Shang Yi became a commentator for the Beijing TV Sports Channel before accompanying his son to Florida.
His mother, Wu Na, who remains in Beijing and visits Florida, is a former international table tennis star. She won a bronze medal in singles and gold medal in mixed doubles in the 1997 World Table Tennis Championships, and a bronze medal at the same event in women’s doubles in 1995.
“My dad played football, soccer, and mom played table tennis so, for me, they chose a sport something in the middle,” said Shang, laughing. “They chose not the big ball though, but the small ball for me.”
Finding a path in tennis rather than either soccer or table tennis seems to have been a smart choice for Shang, which he proved again on Sunday.
The first set of the final was a nip-and-tuck affair that went down to a deciding tiebreaker.
Both players scored two mini-breaks by the time the score was 4-4 in the tiebreaker. Rodriguez missed out on the one set point he had at 6-5, and two points later mishit a forehand to allow Shang to notch the opening set.
Rodriguez also held a break point on Shang’s serve at 5-5 in the first set, but failed to take the advantage when he missed backhand return.
The two players, who actually warmed each other up just hours before the final, exchanged early service breaks in the second set.
At 3-3, Shang rallied to take a lasting lead in the second set. He set up a 15-40 break point opportunity with a winning forehand passing shot. He went on to break serve for a 4-3 lead with a backhand crosscourt winner.
Shang served out the 1 hour, 54 minute match at love, taking the title with a scorching forehand winner down the line.
At this point, Shang believes his junior days have come to a conclusion and he’ll be concentrating on playing these lower level pro events to work his way up the ATP rankings. His junior career climaxed this year with a quarterfinal showing at the French Open, semifinals at Wimbledon and final appearance at the US Open last month.
In the last 25 years, only two former junior world No. 1s – Roger Federer of Switzerland and Andy Roddick of the United States – went on to become world No. 1s on the main men’s ATP Tour.
Undoubtedly, Shang will be hoping to replicate Federer and Roddick’s feat of translating No. 1 status in the juniors to being the best player in the world. If he could achieve that distinction it certainly would make him a superstar back home in China.
While Li Na won two Grand Slam singles titles and reached a career high ranking of No. 2 in the world in the women’s game, no Chinese man has ever even journeyed into the top 100 in the men’s ATP rankings.
“I think that is a big goal because I’m only 16 right now,” Shang said. “But that’s something I’ll look for in the future hopefully, but it’s important to take one step at a time right now.”
Rodriguez believes the future ahead is very bright for Shang, who played a mature and structured match against him.
“What I experienced today was how good he manages important moments and how good he is that his pulse doesn’t shake whenever there are tight moments in the match,” Rodriguez said. “That makes him special, especially with his being so young.”
As Shang’s likely to discover when you’re a professional tennis player you learn to live a life where a different hotel room becomes where you live each week. Taking that into account, players tend to find tournaments they enjoy playing, a feeling which is often bolstered by having success at a locale.
That’s just what’s happened for Rodriguez, who has favored playing at Vero Beach, which is just a short road trip up I-95 from his home in Ft. Lauderdale.
This marked Rodriguez’s second time in the Mardy Fish tournament final. He lost out to Juan Benitez of Colombia 7-5, 2-6, 6-4 in the 2018 championship match.
In 2017, he reached the quarterfinals and last year he reached the quarterfinals of the UTR event hosted by Vero Beach tournament organizers.
“Ever since I came here for the first time, I think in 2017, you guys have treated me as one of you, as family,” Rodriguez said in a post-match on-court interview this week. “This is one of my favorite places to come and play. Whenever I do my schedule Vero is always a priority for me. You are one of my greatest friends.”
Rodriguez, who reached a career high ranking of No. 282 in June 2014, has been stalwart for Venezuela in Davis Cup, a high-level international team competition, during his career. He’s played in 18 Davis Cup ties since 2012 for a 22-9 record.
Most recently, Davis Cup provided Rodriguez with a special opportunity to play at the Westside Tennis Club in Forest Hills, NY, which hosted the prestigious US National/US Open for an overall 60 years (1915 to 1920 and 1924 through 1977).
In September, Venezuela lost to South Africa 4-0 in a World Group II Davis Cup tie that was hosted on neutral ground at Forest Hills.
“About a month ago I got the opportunity to play in Forest Hills and that was such a great experience for me,” Rodriguez said. I played 18 times Davis Cup but none of them in such an historic place. That’s little bit of the (payoff) for the hard work and sacrifice.”
In Saturday’s late doubles final, Florida Gator teammates Duarte Vale of Portugal and Johannes Ingildsen of Denmark defeated Ben Shelton, also a Florida Gator, and Liam Draxl of Canada and the University of Kentucky 6-3, 6-4.