14 days and counting: The Chinese player evading home, coronavirus

Zhizhen Zhang says that as a result of travel restrictions put in place after the coronavirus outbreak, getting to tournaments is the main worry. Deepthi Indukuri

BENGALURU -- Zhizhen Zhang is tailed by a persistent query wherever he goes these days: How long has it been since he flew out of his country, China? He's now learnt to keep precise count of his travel days. "Today is the 14th day since I left my hometown Shanghai," he says, almost reflexively, even before the question lands.

The world No. 136-ranked player, who lost both his singles and doubles matches on Wednesday at the Bengaluru Open Challenger tournament, is now frantically making plans for how and where to travel from the southern Indian city for the next couple of months. Most of it centres around stalling a return to his own country. "Whenever my parents call me, all they tell me is to not come back now," says Zhang. "They want me to stay away from home and stay safe."

China is at the epicentre of the novel coronavirus outbreak, which has, at the time of publishing, claimed over 1,300 lives and infected nearly 60,000 in mainland China, according to official estimates. Declared a global emergency by the WHO, the coronavirus has sent fear ripples across the world, with several airlines suspending flights to China and many countries imposing temporary bans on the entry of people travelling from China.

India has also suspended all visas to Chinese nationals issued before February 5 no matter which part of the world they are traveling from, while barring the entry of foreign nationals who've been to China on or before January 15.

Zhang (23), currently China's highest-ranked singles player, was one of three players from China scheduled to play in Bengaluru but the only one who actually made it. He competed in the ATP 250 series Maharashtra Open last week in Pune and then came to Bengaluru. "I'm lucky," he says, "since I left the country early. They (the other two players) are stuck in China since the embassy back home was shut for the Chinese new year and, because of the virus, most countries, including India, aren't accepting e-visas either."

Though he's away, Zhang worries for his people back home. "Shanghai can't afford to lose to the virus like Wuhan has," he says, "It's a massive city. People have begun returning to work this week (after the end of the extended Lunar Year holiday) so it looks scary now. We don't know what's in store."

Two of China's biggest cities, Beijing and Shanghai, capital and financial centre respectively, with a combined population of over 44 million, are under partial lockdown to clamp down on the spread of the virus. Stricter controls were announced this week on the movement of residents and vehicles, along with compulsory mask-wearing and shutting down leisure and other non-essential community services.

He has his immediate itinerary chalked out - travel to Dubai for the ATP 500 tournament next week and a Challenger tournament in USA after that, beyond which his plans are in a state of flux. China are supposed to take on Romania in a World Group 1 playoff away tie on March 6 and 7 and Zhang, who's been part of two Davis Cup campaigns earlier (in 2017 and 2019), may have to travel back to his country. "My concern is to get my doubles partner who's from China to travel to another country and stay there for two weeks before he joins me in USA for the Challenger tournament," says Zhang. "Now, more than the tournaments, it's how we get there that's the bigger worry." American travel restrictions following the outbreak stipulate that non-American nationals who have been in mainland China in the past 14 days are not allowed to enter the country.

Across sport too, federations and players have resorted to preventive measures. Late last month, the ATP cancelled four Challenger tournaments that were slated to be held in China in March, while the Asia/Oceania Group 1 Fed Cup tie featuring India has been shifted to Dubai from Dongguan, China. To avoid returning home, the Chinese table tennis team has taken up Qatar's offer of a training base, flying to Doha directly at the conclusion of the German Open. The Qatar table tennis association is providing meals, accommodation, 15 practice tables and 2000 balls to the squad of thirty and the table tennis powerhouses will stay put there until the Qatar Open, which begins on March 3.

While table tennis has China traditionally sweeping the medals on offer, in tennis the world's most populous country is more than a few steps behind. China has no men's players in the top 100, in contrast with three in the top 50 in the WTA lineup. "Yeah, we the men have a lot of catching up to do," Zhang says. "Our girls are way better in tennis. I think for most of us, it's trouble with lasting long matches and long seasons. At least, that's how it looks to me." Former Grand Slam champion Li Na has been the single-most pioneering figure in the Chinese women's game, breaking into the top 10 months before winning her maiden Grand Slam at the 2011 French Open.

For Zhang, tennis was born more out of convenience than choice. His father, Weihua, was a defender in the ShenHua football club while his mother Qin Wei was a member of the Shanghai shooting and archery team. As a four-year-old, Zhang was enrolled into both swimming and tennis classes. "My parents wanted me to play an individual sport. My swimming coach was really strict so when I had to pick between either when I was six, I chose tennis. It looked like the easier option then. Now, I know it's far from that," jokes Zhang.

He does count himself lucky so far, though. With a mentor in former World No. 3 Ivan Ljubicic, Zhang knows he always has help at hand. In 2016, Ljubicic even put him in touch with his idol Roger Federer and they had an hour-long practice session in Monte Carlo that year. "I don't think he (Federer) even knew who I was," says Zhang, "At the end of the session, he came up and spoke to me but I was just so starstruck and tongue-tied that I don't even recall what I said."

The chat meanders its way back to the coronavirus and Zhang says he gave the people around him in India a mild scare when he complained of a fever at the start of the week. "I visited the tournament doctor's room because I was feeling uneasy and running a bit of a fever. When he learnt I'm from China, he was worried. Since I didn't have cough and I'd been out of the country for a while, it helped put everyone at ease," Zhang says. "Now wherever I go, when I tell people I'm from China, I make sure I add that I've not been to the country in two weeks."