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Over Before It Began

By Mark Winters

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For me, the 2020 Australian Open ended before it actually began. The reason – Hyeon Chung pulled out of the men’s qualifying.

Having begun writing about the game when the men were still competing in long white pants and crisp white shirts, or so it seems, I now try to find Grand Slam tournament story topics that are interesting and offer room for creative development.

The idea is not to run the table with a fortnight of “same old, same old” themes. There always are a variety of slightly altered versions of – Will Djokovic, Williams, Nadal or Federer Win – compositions. So, I attempt to find subjects that will result in unique features.

That is why I held hope that Chung, who enthralled the tennis world in 2018 by reaching the semifinals, would return to Melbourne and again showcase his talent at the Australian Open.

Because of an astigmatism, the South Korean took up the game as a six-year-old in an attempt to strengthen his vision. In time, not only did he become a junior “to watch”, but his glasses became his defining style.

Hyeon Chung
Photo: Facebook

Two years ago, he played with verve. His panache was captivating. In the third round, he wore down Alexander Zverev of Russia, the No. 4 seed, in five draining sets.

He followed up with a straight set triumph over six-time Australian Open titlist, Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who was seeded a lowly (for him) No. 16 because he was returning to competition after taking six months off to deal with a right elbow injury.

In a quarterfinal contest between “unseeds”, he dispatched Tennys Sandgren of the US in another straight set performance. His success set the stage for what was expected to be a dramatic, “not to be missed” semifinal contest with No. 2 seed Roger Federer. The formidable and fabled Swiss performer was pitted against a youngster who was, for the most part, unknown.

Unfortunately, the magic remained trapped in the bottle as Federer dashed the then 21-year-old’s hopes, who after becoming the first South Korean to reach a Grand Slam semifinal, wanted to be the first of his countrymen to actually be in the running for a major title.

At the time, no one had an inkling that the 6-1, 5-2, Retired score (due to blisters on both feet) would foretell what was to come. As it turned out, it was a preview of Chung’s competitive résumé for the next two years.

Before discussing what has come about since his retirement against Federer, reviewing Chung’s Australian Open background offers insight into his special relationship with the event.

In 2015, he lost 6-7, 3-6 to Elias Ymer of Sweden in the final round of the qualifying. A year later, Djokovic, the tournament winner, dropped but nine games defeating him in the first round.

For Chung, 2017 was scrapbook worthy highlight. He defeated Renzo Olivo of Argentina for his initial Melbourne win. In his next match, against Grigor Dimitrov, he won the first set 6-1, then the No. 15 seeded Bulgarian pulled out a trio of 6-4 sets and took the match.

After his breakout 2018 performance, Chung returned to Melbourne in 2019 as the No. 24 seed. In the first round he survived against Bradley Klahn of the US. After dropping the first two tie-break sets, he squeak out a 6-7, 6-7, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 triumph. But, Pierre-Hugues Herbert of France sent him home in the next round 6-1, 1-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Hyeon Chung
Photo: Juergen Hasenkopf

At 6’2” (188 cm) and a solid 196 pounds (89 kg), Chung seems to have a body type that would allow him to withstand the rigors of tour play. Sadly, physiques don’t define an individual’s resilience.

In 2015 he earned the ATP Most Improved Player Award, but an injury brought about a tennis hiatus following Roland Garros in 2016. It took him almost four months to deal with an injured abdomen.

During 2017, he made steady progress both on the court and from an injury standpoint. In fact, he won the inaugural Next Generation ATP Final in Milan, Italy. (The event showcases competitors 21 or younger, playing three out of five sets, with the set winner being the first to claim four games.) 

In the process, he played through the round-robin, (two groups with four players each), without losing a match. In the semifinals, he was 4-1, 4-1, 3-4, 1-4, 4-0 better than Daniil Medvedev of Russia. In the final, after Andrey Rublev of Russia took the first set, 4-3, Chung came back to win the championship 4-3, 4-2, 4-2.

Injuries have turned coverage of Chung into updates about the time he will need to recover from a particular ailment.

In addition to the horrific blisters, in 2018, he spent time trying to find tennis shoes that would resolve the issue and contending with a lingering back problem that carried over into the beginning of the next tournament season.

As a result, his ranking dropped from a career high of No. 19 in early April 2018 to No. 128 at the end of last year.

For an elite professional, injuries appear to be a bugaboo. Just after the 2020 Australian Open Men’s Qualifying draw had been announced, with Chung facing Lorenzo Musetti of Italy in the first round, his management company IMG announced he was withdrawing from the tournament because of a right hand injury.

Unfortunately, no further information was offered concerning the injury prognosis. 

For those who like watching a young and aggressive player with “It”, Hyeon Chung’s return to Melbourne is anxiously anticipated. Fingers crossed, (his, too), he will be on the court, at full strength, at the 2021 Australian Open.

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