ATP Challenger Dispatch: Hua Hin

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2015-Nov-06

You would think that winning your first round match 6-1, 6-1 would make a man happy. But not Yen-Hsun Lu of Taiwan. Immediately after shaking Tsung-HuaYang’s hand at the net, Lu marched off the court, grabbed Christopher Rungkat as a sparring partner and went straight to the practice court for 30 minutes of forehands.

“I thought he played well and that we would get back to the hotel early for once,” laughs Lu’s coach,Danai Udomchoke. “Rendy will not accept anything but his best. He pushes himself all the way all the time.”

“I missed too many forehands today,” Lu told me afterwards. “The court plays fast and my timing was not good on the change of direction.”

That is Lu for you, the ultimate perfectionist. He does not see his good shots, but he never forgets an unforced error. On the first day of practice this week with Yuichi Sugita, Lu started yelling at himself and banging his racquet on the court during the warm-up. Even though this is Lu’s last tournament of the year, and he just won the ATP Challenger Tour event in Ningbo, he will not cut corners.

Maybe it is that attitude that took Lu to a career-high No. 33 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. And along the way beating Andy Roddick at 2010 Wimbledon en route to a quarter-final loss to Novak Djokovic.

This week, we are in Thailand at the ATP Challenger Hua Hin Open. The venue at the Centennial Club is brand new with plenty of courts and an all-star cast of gold badge chair umpires. Way back when, Hua Hin used to be a little coastal fishing village, but it soon became a favourite retreat for the royal family and today, it is known as a celebrity spa haven.

Two weeks ago in Ningbo, China I happened upon Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka who had just lost his fourth first-round match in a row to Germany’s Daniel Mazur. Nishioka had smashed a pair of racquets and hurled his shoulder bag into the parking lot. This year, Nishioka reached a career-high No. 127 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. With little to defend in the second half of the year, he looked certain to finish inside the Top 100.

“I am feeling very mad,” said Nishioka. “I feel a lot of pressure. I want to be Top 100 by end of the year. In Japan, the rankings are very important because of national teams and sponsors.”

Nishioka’s is not just imagining things. Japan takes its tennis very seriously and whether you are ranked No. 100 or No. 700 corporate sponsors pay handsomely. A spot on the Davis Cup and 2016 Olympic teams for a Japanese player can go a very long way. With Go Soeda at No. 111, Tatsuma Ito No. 119,Taro Daniel No. 121 and Sugita at No. 132, there is plenty of competition.

Nishioka managed to turn things around this week by getting past two of the ATP Challenger Tour circuits biggest hitters, Alexander Kudryavtsev of Russia (6-2, 7-6) and German Peter Gojowysk (6-4, 7-6).

On the ATP Challenger Tour they call him ‘The Bull’. And for a good reason, he not only looks like one, but he runs, grunts and fights just like you would imagine a raging bull to do. His proper name is Hsin-Han Lee and he plays doubles on the ATP Challenger Tour. ‘The Bull’ does not apologise for shanks or net-cords and he is cursed with a backhand that only a mother could love. He uses a western forehand grip and every time he hits what appears to be a backhand you wonder how his elbow stays attached to his arm. What Lee lacks in technique he more than makes up for with the most amazing indomitable will to win.

“I know players and coaches laugh at my backhand stroke and volley,” said Lee. “But I don’t care how I look in the eyes of other players. I care about winning. As long as I can get the ball over the net and win the point that is good enough for me.”

This week, ‘The Bull’ is playing doubles this week with his fellow Taiwanese, Lu.

“I don’t know how many times I asked Rendy (Lu) to play with me,” admits Lee. “More than 10 times over the years, but he always said, ‘no’. But this week, he agreed to play and I want to do my best.”

I was able to watch their first tournament together as they played Japan’s Toshihide Matsui and Ito. On this night it was all Taiwan, as Lee went rogue and dominated the court at every position.

“I was mentally prepared for Lu to make great returns,” Matsui said after the match. “But actually, it was ‘The Bull’ who did not miss. Credit to him, he took over the match.”

Lu and Lee might be from the same country, but they could not be more different. Lu relies on his rock solid training habits to insure precision and perfection. While Lee finds a way to hammer out wins with his alpha male attitude. However, they do have one common denominator – the most incredible determination to succeed.