by Anand Mamidipudi
Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Borna Coric, Karen Khachanov… these names easily roll off our tongues when we are asked to pick the crown prince of men’s tennis (it must be noted that King Roger is very much alive and unwilling to abdicate his throne just yet).
Then there is Hyeon Chung, named aptly with a homonym of “young”. In the 2013 Wimbledon Boys’ Championship, Chung burst through the draw containing all of the above young rising stars to play in the final. On his way to the final, he eviscerated the top seed, Kyrgios, in straight sets (6-2, 6-2) and then skewered Coric (7-6 6-2) in the following round. Nobody really paid attention to Chung because no matter what he did at Wimbledon, it seemed unlikely that a bespectacled Korean kid would amount to much when everyone grew into their 6 foot frames. Chung’s result was an anomaly.
The truth is Chung himself is an anomaly! Koreans are not supposed to dominate men’s tennis. Before Chung, the highest ranked Korean ever was a potato farmer called Hyung-Taik Lee, who over-achieved his way to a rank of 36. Lee is perhaps better remembered for being Roger Federer’s first victim on way his to winning his first Wimbledon. The next best Korean player in history is Kim Bong Soo, who is known for rising above and beyond on his home turf at the Seoul Olympics to shock the French Open finalist / leftie wizard, Henri Leconte. Kim knew that he had peaked right then, because he promptly lost in the next round to Martin Jaite.
So when Chung reached the boys’ Wimbledon final, nobody could be blamed for not batting an eyelid and casting aside his achievement into the ATP trash bin along with the likes of Leander Paes, Luke Saville and Márton Fucsovics (who incidentally lost to Roger a couple of days ago in the fourth round of the Australian Open).
I followed Chung closely ever since he made that boys’ final, mainly because I developed a strong kinship with his Asian roots. There have been Japanese tennis stars, but Japan was always ahead of the curve in modernization stakes – in many ways they are close to the West. Korea, despite its obvious affluence, was more identifiable to me as an Indian (cue: compare perception of Korean cars to Japanese cars). The point being, Chung’s rise seemed more improbable and closer to home than Kei Nishikori’s exploits. Heck, Chung started playing tennis because his doctor told him that it would improve his severe astigmatism.
A couple of years ago, I dragged along a group of friends to watch 19 year old Chung play the formidable Stan Wawrinka in the second round at the Louis Armstrong stadium in the US Open. Most of the crowd was present to witness the the gorgeous one-handed backhand of Wawrinka. I was there to watch Chung. Chung gave Wawrinka everything he could handle over three tie-breaks. Chung was fast, he was accurate and mostly importantly, he was a bigger guy at 6′ 2″ than the typical Asian player. This meant that his game, while predicated on speed and defense at that point, would grow as he added offensive weapons. The match against Wawrinka should have been sufficient to anoint him as one of the front-runners in the princely stakes, but nobody really noticed – he was a bespectacled Korean after all.
A year later, I hung on to my obsession of following Chung, even as another future star, Shapovalov caught my fancy. Chung’s ranking had stalled in the mid-double digits and my hope was waning. While the rest of the young ‘uns, included the much heralded Sascha Zverev, started making inroads into the top 100 and coming away with some spectacular wins, Chung seemed to fade away. He was injured in late 2016 and missed the last two slams of the year. My hopelessness notwithstanding, I still enjoyed following his slow climb back into the upper echelon as he battled through several Challenger tournaments in his comeback.
The real breakthrough came at the end of 2017, in the Next Gen ATP Finals, where Chung played against the best of the “next gen” – a flawed concept proven by the absence of Zverev – and won the tournament. It was then that I knew that Chung was for real. His junior Wimbledon final result was not a mirage. He was back in the mix and clearly still among the best! In beating Djokovic at the Australian Open a couple of days ago, Chung displayed the confidence and poise of a champion, something that has eluded the more highly rated Zverev. He showed elite movement and defensive skills. He also befuddled Djokovic with a stunning array of forehand topspin shots and a rock solid backhand. The great Djokovic knew that he was battling a younger, fitter mirror image of himself.
The rise of Chung is a potential game changer for the sport of tennis. When Se Ri Pak won the LPGA Championship in 1998, it triggered an explosion of female golfing champions from South Korea, including the 7 time major winner, Inbee Park. Now 4 of the top 10 women are Koreans, and 38 out of the top 100. If Chung wins a Slam in the near future, it could change the very fabric of men’s tennis. In fact, right behind the visually impaired Chung is the remarkable 19 year old Duck-hee Lee, who is one of the top juniors in the world despite being deaf. Young Chung has firmly put himself on the top of the totem pole of Next Gen players and shattered every stereotype in making it to the semis of the Australian Open. Regardless of how he performs against Federer, nobody will bet against Chung becoming a King.