The conversation does not necessarily flow when you’re speaking to Chung Hyeon in English, but hidden between the monosyllabic responses, there is an underlying sense of humour.
Having just started to learn the language at the end of last year, the 19-year-old South Korean has dramatically improved within a short span of time but is still reluctant to say too much.
His father Seok-Jin used to be a tennis player back home in Suwon, a town 30km outside Seoul. Was he any good? “He says he was,” Chung responds with a laugh.
The bespectacled youngster, who was named the ATP’s Most Improved Player of the Year last November, climbed from 167 to 51 in the rankings in 2015 – thanks to the four titles he won on the Challenger Tour – and is currently one of just four teenagers ranked in the top 100 (behind Borna Coric and Alexander Zverev and ahead of Taylor Fritz).
He was unable to attend the ATP’s awards ceremony himself as he was completing a mandatory four-week military training in Korea. He is the first Korean in history to receive an ATP award of any kind.
Chung grew up hitting balls with his older brother – a lefty who now plays tennis at the collegiate level in Korea – and spent two years at the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida from the age of 13 to 15.
He is now a key figure in the ATP’s ‘Next Generation’, a campaign launched by the tour at Indian Wells this week which focuses on the players born in 1995 or later that are ranked in the top 200.
Currently playing his first full season on the ATP tour, Chung is trying to adapt to many things at once, be it competing at a higher level against tougher players, handling the pressure that comes with playing against the big guns and most of all, getting acquainted with the people without being able to communicate with them properly.
“Everything is different from juniors. The players are different, the tournaments, the people are different, it’s hard to play on tour,” says Chung.
Tennis is a lonely enough sport without the added obstacle of having a language barrier. It is a reality Chung has realised early on.
His friend David Hyondo travels with him as often as possible and speaks to him only in English, in order to help Chung improve.
“He gives me homework,” Chung explains. “He tells me to watch American dramas, so I watch Prison Break. And Modern Family too.
“Now that I’m studying English, things are getting a bit easier on tour.”
Chung had quite the peculiar reason to get into tennis. He had poor eyesight as a young child and his doctor advised him to concentrate on the colour green in order to see better.
His father thought playing tennis and focusing on the fuzzy ball would help and since then, Chung has never looked back. In 2013, he showed early signs of what he is capable of when he made the Wimbledon juniors final, taking out Nick Kyrgios and Borna Coric along the way.
Kyrgios is already a two-time grand slam quarter-finalist, is ranked No27 in the world, thanks to a title run in Marseille last month, and has seven top-10 scalps to his name.
Coric is the youngest player in the top-50, has made his first ATP final in Chennai in January, and has two top-10 wins under his belt against Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray.
Chung is aware he remains a step behind them as he is still finding his bearings on the ATP tour. He doesn’t feel the ‘Next Generation’ can disturb the tennis order at the top this season.
“Kyrgios can make the top 10 I think. After a few years maybe the younger generation can make an impact,” he says.
Not this year? “Maybe, I don’t know,” he says with hesitation. “For me personally, I need to adapt mentally and physically. In tennis, you need to have a big serve too so I’m trying to work on my serve.”
He finds the success Kyrgios and Coric are having so far as a real encouragement. “It’s good for me because I played them in juniors, in under-14, in the junior slams, so now maybe I can do as well as they are doing,” adds Chung.
He idolises Novak Djokovic and faced the world No1 in the Australian Open in January. He lost in straights, but showed glimpses of his highly-touted talent.
“Djokovic plays good baseline and is strong mentally, everything is good, perfect, that’s why I look up to him,” says Chung. “It was a good experience, a chance to learn from him.”
Chung is also strong from the baseline, although he has some unorthodox strokes, his forehand bordering on the bizarre technique of Ernests Gulbis, where the Latvian’s stance before hitting the shot looks like he’s standing on a surfboard.
“I like playing from the baseline but I want to improve some net play and my return,” he asserts.
Chung is single-handedly putting South Korea on the tennis map and he will be looking to leave his mark when he makes his Indian Wells debut this week. Are the masses taking notice of his progress back home?
“In Korea I only get attention on the tennis court, but on the street no, because tennis isn’t popular at home. Football, baseball, basketball, swimming…” he says.
It’s fair to assume that won’t be the case much longer.
Maria Sharapova is not just a tennis star. She is a global sports icon, a successful entrepreneur and the highest-earning female athlete in the world.
Between her tennis earnings, her endorsement deals and her business ventures, Sharapova is essentially an empire.
So when one of the most recognisable figures in women’s sport admits she has failed a doping test, it’s only natural that the world’s reaction is dramatic and the consequences are grave. This is undoubtedly the biggest doping scandal to hit tennis and it is shocking that the protagonist of this story is someone as professional and
in-control as Sharapova.
How such a “huge mistake” – as she describes it – was allowed to happen in the presence of a massive entourage of coaches, fitness trainers, doctors, physiotherapists, agents and managers that all report to Sharapova is the question on everyone’s mind.
If she has been legally taking this drug for 10 years, how did her doctor not know Meldonium was added to WADA’s 2016 list of prohibited substances and advise her to stop taking it? How did Sharapova permit herself to be this careless and not check the new list of banned substances that was emailed to her in December and allow herself to compete at a grand slam with a performance-enhancing drug present in her system?
The Russian five-time major champion did the smart PR move by taking this head on and announcing it herself. She also did what so many other athletes fail to do, which is accepting full responsibility for what happened. That level of transparency has not been tennis’ strong suit so far and information tends to be minimal when scandal strikes.
So standing up there and publicly admitting she made a mistake was groundbreaking in many ways and tennis should take this opportunity to prove to the world that doping is not an issue that is taken lightly in this sport, irrespective of the profile of the player involved.
The Tennis Anti-Doping programme has come under fire many times for lack of out-of-competition testing and lack of blood testing as well. It’s imperative that everything is done right moving forward, that Sharapova is treated like any other player while also making sure whatever punishment she gets is in proportion with the degree of fault. You don’t want officials to be too harsh in trying to make an example out of her or too lenient because of her profile.
The public reaction has ranged from calling Sharapova a drugs cheat, having taken a performance-enhancing drug for all those years, to chalking it off as a mere case of negligence. I don’t believe a judgment can be passed until the ITF performs an investigation and reveals all the details on why Sharapova was taking this drug and whether she intentionally used it to enhance her performance.
A ban is inevitable and for someone who has been at the top of the sport all this time, a mistake like this is inconceivable and to some extent unforgiveable. Sharapova had been legally taking the drug for 10 years. The fault falls on her for any use of the drug after January 1, 2016. She failed the test on January 26. Those 26 days may end up defining her career and for someone who has built an impeccable image over the past 12 years or so, it is hard to imagine how that image can recover from this.
Former world No1 Justine Henin is saddened by the news of Maria Sharapova failing a doping test and admits it’s “not good for the game”.
Five-time grand slam winner Sharapova announced on Monday she had tested positive for a substance called meldonium at this year’s Australian Open.
Henin, who along with Marat Safin was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame Tuesday, has faced off with Sharapova 10 times in her career, and the Belgian admits the scandal is a dark moment for the sport.
“It’s not nice what’s happening and I think we’re all a little bit sad and disappointed about the situation,” Henin said on a conference call last night to discuss her Hall of Fame induction. “It’s never good for the game and it’s never good for anyone, for the fans, all the people that support the game and the sport and probably not good for Maria at the moment. I’m not in the position to judge… so many questions have to be asked and it’s very difficult at the moment to give an opinion.
“What I can just say is that it’s not good for the game. Rules are important and have to be respected. I feel a little bit sad about all this.”
Safin believes his Russian compatriot Sharapova did not take the prohibited substance with “bad intention” but concedes that rules are rules.
Sharapova revealed she had been taking meldonium for 10 years for health reasons and was unaware that it had been added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s list of prohibited substances from January 1.
Safin sympathises with Sharapova and hopes she does not receive an exaggerated punishment.
“Of course it’s not really nice, first of all for the sport, second of all for Maria,” said Safin, an ex-world No1. “It depends how they take it, how they see the situation.
“I don’t think it’s done with a bad intention, I guess. I believe so, I want to believe so. But I think it has to be resolved in a certain delicate way and not taking it at a different level, not taking it out of proportion. Because otherwise, it’s not good for everybody. But of course rules are rules, that’s for sure.”
Meanwhile, world No1 Serena Williams applauded Sharapova for the way she revealed the news.
“I think most people were surprised and shocked by Maria but at the same time most people were happy that she was just up front and very honest and showed a lot of courage to admit to what she had done and what she had neglected to look at,” said Williams in New York.