ATP Challenger Dispatch: Ho Chi Minh City


Maybe the biggest challenge for the tennis players participating in the Vietnam Open in Ho Chi Minh this week is just crossing the street. Players who are here for the first time are amazed at how many motor scooters fill wide avenues and seem to flow in unison like a slow moving tidal wave with no apparent traffic plan.

Not many ATP Challenger events have retractable roofs on center court but they do here at the Lah Anh Country Club.  We are nearing the end of the rainy season and monsoons sweep in from South China Sea bringing heavy rains and a suffocating blanket of humidity that is causing havoc for the Europeans. On court trash bins are stuffed with soaked grip tape, and Flavio Cipolla told me after getting past Luke Saville that at times he struggled just to keep the racquet in his hand during the point.

Drinking coffee seems to be the Vietnamese national past time. All day and late into the night coffee shops are packed with locals sitting in low slung chairs or on plastic squat stools. What a pleasure it is to sit and drink thick cups of coffee while people-watching. Ladies shine in their traditional colourful silk ao dai dresses, and farmers come in from long days in the fields wearing the conical bamboo hat. Everywhere you go in Ho Chi Minh you will see red flags with the five-pointed gold star, or smaller red flags with the yellow hammer and sickle symbolising the industrial and agricultural industries.

The care factor of tournament director, Long Le Hoang, and his staff is evident in the little details that add up to make a fine event. Hoang brought in an experienced coach in Michael Baroch, who runs a successful tennis school in Singapore and his daughter, Mikaylie. They have shown great Aussie work ethic by jumping in and carrying towels, water and even laundry bags to the players. Speaking of the little things that add up to save the players money are; airport pick-up, free buffet food for lunch and dinner, and free stringing for players using a particular brand of racquet.

On the practice courts you see which players are most committed to their craft. Young Duckhee Lee of South Korea has risen fast, but he and his team know the weakest part of his game is his serve. After losing in the first round, I saw him back on the practice court with a box of balls to work on his serve. I have no doubt he will improve it immediately.

Two other players here that I have really enjoyed watching this week; Stephane Robert and Laurent Rochette. Though they both lost in the qualifying rounds you would not know it by the amount of time they have spent on court each day.  All week, Robert and Rochette are the first players to arrive in the morning and the last ones to leave at night. They feed balls to each other for specific drill sessions in the early morning, warm up players during the day, and play practice sets at night under the lights.

Robert reached an Emirates ATP Ranking of No. 61 in 2010, and has qualified for all four Grand Slams, reaching the Australian Open round of 16 in 2014. Just last year, Robert was ranked No. 75 but injuries and loss of match confidence took their toll and his ranking plummeted. This year, Robert qualified for Roland Garros at the age of 35.

“I think next year is probably my last,” says Robert. “It has been a long journey and a lot of things have happened in my head through this wonderful experience. When I started my career I never expected to do some of the things that I have done. I have found an inner peace with myself and I can walk away knowing that I gave my best.”

Now, Robert is helping to share some of those experiences with good friend, Laurent Rochette. Both players have lost a lot of playing time due to illness and injury. They know all too well the frustration of having to start over. For Rochette, several of his injuries came because of his intense desire and work ethic. Twice he broke bones on the court while diving for balls.

“Stephane is the only tennis player that I can share what is really deep in my heart,” confesses Rochette. “He has helped me in many ways and not just by training together. He has helped me with the importance of calmness of how to get it by breathing, on and off the court; he helped me how to connect it outside and inside the court. And he is showing by example, which is just as important.”

With all the talk about ‘smart tennis technology’ today it is nice to see some good old fashion tennis IQ in real time. And that is just what Daniel Nguyen of Oxnard, California, USA did in his second-round match here. Nguyen showed off his ability to think quickly on his feet and counter the heavy hitting SpaniardAdrian Menendez-Maceiras with soft slices across the court and deft forehand and backhand sliders up the line. The effect was cumulative as it forced the Menendez-Maceiras to hit one, two and even three more balls per point. All of which took its toll as high humidity levels slowly drained the fight from the more experienced Spaniard.

Menendez-Maceiras battled to win the second set, however the damage was done and he had nothing left in the tank as Nguyen ran away with the third set 6-1. The Vietnamese crowd considers Nguyen a local and the atmosphere was enthusiastic to say the least. Sport fans who came to watch may not know all the rules and finer points of tennis etiquette such as cheering during the point and clapping at double faults, but they sure appreciated a good David and Goliath battle.

The early 2016 ATP Challenger calendar came out recently and many of the players are excited about the three new Challengers added in January: two in Bangkok and one in Manila. And it’s not just the players who are excited: I rode back in a shuttle with two umpires who spoke about having more work now. This is the trickle-down effect of having more ATP events in Asia that spurs tennis development. Yes, it is good for the players, but it is equally good for those coaches, umpires, linesmen, and others who work in the tennis industry. Not to mention the next Kei Nishikori or Duckhee Lee, who might be standing along the fence watching Stephane Robert and Laurent Rochette hitting tennis balls.