By John Delong
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (June 19, 2017) -- Hyeon Chung took up tennis at age six in hopes of improving his eyesight.
His vision was so weak that a doctor recommended he do something to focus on the color green. Tennis provided such an opportunity, along with forcing him to focus sharply on the optic-yellow tennis ball.
It has been a love affair ever since, and now the 21-year-old South Korean is one of the fastest-rising young players on the ATP World Tour. He is No. 53 in the latest ATP World Tour singles rankings, and is a comfortable fourth in the Race to Milan standings for players eyeing the inaugural #NextGen ATP Finals in November. Eight players qualify.
Chung recently completed an outstanding clay-court season in which he reached the third round at Roland Garros, the semifinals at Munich and the quarterfinals in Barcelona. It’s a sign of how rapidly Chung is improving, because clay has always been his least-favorite surface and he has always had limited success in the past.
In Barcelona, he advanced through qualifying and beat fellow #NextGen phenom Alexander Zverev in the second round before losing to Rafael Nadal in the quarters. In Munich, he posted a win over Gael Monfils in the second round. At Roland Garros, he beat Sam Querrey and Dennis Istomin before extending Kei Nishikori to five sets in a third-round loss.
“I don’t know why I play good on clay in this year,” Chung said. “This year I was able to adapt to it (clay), and I felt like I moved great. It was encouraging to beat some top players and go deep in a few events.
“I’m just trying to focus on the court and trying to enjoy all the time on the court. I think that’s the first thing. I’m mentally better than last year and a little stronger, which I think is the key.”
Chung participated in the 2015 Winston-Salem Open as a 19-year-old, reaching the third round. He beat James Ward and Benoit Paire in the first two rounds before losing to Yen-Hsun Lu 6-7, 6-1, 5-7 in the round of 16. It was part of his march to a career-high No. 51 two months later.
“That was a tough loss in three sets and Lu is a friend on tour,” Chung recalled. “But it was a great experience. It’s a great tournament in a great state, and I can’t wait to come back.”
Injuries would not allow Chung to play the WSO last year, and the late-year inactivity caused him to drop all the way to No. 104 going into the start of 2017.
He won a Challenger tournament in Maui to kick off the 2107 season, and has continued to climb back up the rankings ladder ever since.
“I feel like I have made good progress this year, after last year was disrupted by injury,” Chung said. “I am really looking forward to the hard court this year where I feel most at home.”
Brad Gilbert, who will return to the WSO again this year as an analyst for ESPN, has followed Chung’s career closely. He makes a bold statement.
“I think he’s got Top 10 potential,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert says that Chung is bigger than the listed 6-1, 190 pounds.
“The thing about Chung that’s surprising is, he’s a lot bigger than you think he is,” Gilbert said. “I don’t know what he’s listed, but I think he’s about 6-3, 195 pounds, and he moves really well. He’s a very smart player. The movement is off the charts for a guy his size. There’s a lot of potential for his game. And another thing you have to say about him, he’s a really nice guy.”
Chung has had success at every level. He won the Orange Bowl 12-Under Boys title in 2009, and that earned a two-year stint at the IMG Academy from age 13 to 15. He was the Boys singles runner-up at Wimbledon in 2013. He turned professional in 2014 and would go on to win four ITF Futures titles and eight Challenger titles on the way to becoming a regular at the ATP level.
In 2015, he was named the ATP Most Improved Player of the Year in a vote of players.
Eventually, Chung seems destined to become the highest-ranked Korean player ever. That honor currently goes to Hyung-Taik Lee, who reached No. 37 back in 2007.
Chung shrugs off the notion that there’s any pressure on him to become the face of Korean tennis. There are two other fast-rising Koreans, 19-year-olds Soon Woo Kwon and Duckhee Lee, so it appears Korean tennis is on the rise.
“I don’t feel any type of pressure from my compatriots,” he said. “In Korea, tennis isn’t so popular. So I want to make more popular in Korea, I hope. My dream is to win a Slam. But I would like to earn the respect that everyone give me, and face the most-important players.”
One of those most-important players, of course, is Nishikori, the top-ranked Asian player.
“Kei has carried the hopes of Asia for a while now,” Chung said. “I hope I can give him some support and really extend the interest level in tennis in my home country of Korea. I have a lot of respect for Kei.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Winston-Salem Open has showcased great up-and-coming players throughout its history from Kei Nishikori to Grigor Dimitrov to Jack Sock to David Goffin. The trend is sure to continue this year with a large group of #NextGen players jockeying for position in the ATP World Tour’s Race to Milan. This starts a series on #NextGen players who could be on hand for the seventh-annual WSO Aug. 19-26.