ATP CHALLENGER TOUR DISPATCH: GUANGZHOU

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2015-Mar-14

Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis provides an inside look at the ATP Challenger Tour through his series of dispatches. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Guangzhou.

Wu Di is ready for battle on home soil at the Guangzhou Challenger, alongside Davide Sanguinetti.Here in China they have a saying, “the sweet would not be so sweet without the sour.” You could almost say the same about tennis. For the life of a professional tennis player is anything but a continuous contrast.

Nobody knows that better than Aleksandr Nedovyesov. Less than 72 hours ago, he was running shirtless in Astana waiving the Kazakh national flag and soaking up the praises of a nation after he shocked Italy’s Fabio Fognini in five sets, 7-6(5), 3-6, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5. That win, his first ever in Davis Cup competition, came at a good time as it was needed to clinch the Davis Cup tie for Kazakhstan. Today, at the ATP Challenger China International Guangzhou, Nedovyesov was outgunned in straight sets in the first round courtesy of Somdev Devvarman.

“That is not an easy situation for Aleksandr (Nedovyesov),” Devvarman told me after the match. “On Sunday you are playing in front of a lot passionate fans, you win a big one that clinches the tie, you are the hero, now the press loves you, and your phone is going wild and your adrenaline is sky high. You cannot sleep and you think, ‘Yeah, I have arrived’. And then a couple of days later you are playing a first round match where they cannot even pronounce your last name correctly. And you are playing a match where the ball keeps coming back no matter how hard you hit it. Not easy, man. I tell you, tennis can be cruel.”

The top seed here is Blaz Kavcic. Spend a few minutes watching the Slovenian and you cannot help but like him. Kavcic has that clean alpine smile and a woodcutter’s work ethic. He has been as high as No. 68 in the Emirates ATP Rankings and has beaten Lleyton Hewitt twice (Winston-Salem, Roland Garros). Just last year he made four ATP Challenger Tour finals in a row (Fergana, Tianjin, Nanchang and Portoroz), winning three of them.

Carrying that momentum into the 2014 US Open he was set to play Stanislas Wawrinka in the Round of 32 before yet again another injury struck forcing him to give a walkover. For all his guts and determination, Kavcic’s body just keeps testing his limits of perseverance. He has had to deal with one injury after another. This week is his first tournament back after having another surgery, this time on his right foot to repair nerve damage (he had the same surgery on his left foot last year) he got knocked out in the first round. Unfortunately, you don’t get Emirates ATP Rankings points for hard work or bad luck. What you do get points for is winning matches, and that is exactly what Kavcic’s opponent, China’s No. 1 player, Ze Zhang did today.

d3If you have never seen Ze Zhang play tennis then imagine Robin Soderling but with a smile. Decipher the tattoos on ZZ’s back (Zhang’s nickname) and you will get a clear indication about how he feels and where he wants to go. I have known ZZ since he came out of the juniors and he always seems to be in a hurry; whether he is eating dinner, on the phone or during a baseline rally. Zhang is fully loaded with restless energy; one leg is always bouncing at the dinner table or on the changeover, while he is preparing to serve or when out of nowhere he clocks a forehand that could pass for a drone strike.

In the past, Zhang’s was not sure where he wanted to be – on the court or in the club. The dance club that is. And that was reflected in his tennis results. It was not until he spent a year under former ATP World Tour Top 10 player and coach Joachim Nystrom, that Zhang got some zen into his tennis.

“Nystrom taught me how to rally,” admits Zhang. “How to stay in the point. He gave my strokes consistency and rhythm and showed me how to train and prepare like a top ten player does every day. He really helped to build my foundation.”

Zhang and Nystrom are no longer together, but it is very obvious to those of us on the tennis tour that Nystrom left Zhang well prepared for the future.

Here in China we cannot Google (internet restrictions) information unless you buy a VPN online. So instead, most of us Ask Ed, as in ATP Supervisor Ed Hardisty. In fact, just this afternoon during the rain delay I stepped into Ed’s office and asked for a cup of a coffee as I knew Ed had a nice espresso machine at the ready (in China it is mostly 3:1 instant coffee powder). It was not long until Ricardo Ghedin and Aleksandr Nedovyesov lined up for some coffee and then Marcos Daniel came in followed by Sanchai Ratiwatana.

Get a group of players around in the locker room or supervisor’s office and it will not be long till the banter starts. I have heard players say that when they retired from pro tennis what they missed the most, more than the tennis, was the banter with the boys. Soon the questions started pouring in for Ed; “Will we go indoors if keeps raining today?’, “Can you give a not before time?”, “Will it rain tomorrow?”, “Can you print out the new ATP Challenger Tour calendar?”, “What will be the doubles cut next week? Do you think it will drop lower than this week?”, and “Ed, does the sun ever shine in China?” On and on the questions continued and it is amazing how Ed answers each and every question with the patience of Job. Later, after the room had cleared I asked Ed another question, if he thought that China was developing as a tennis nation.

“They are certainly developing tennis facilities,” Ed said. “And they are getting more events like the ATP Challenger in Kunming which means more competition which leads to more opportunities for local players. However, for the general public it is a question of work demand and costs. There are no five day work weeks in China, so getting time off to go play tennis or even watch tennis is a challenge. And then you have the costs to consider. Having said that, they are definitely on the right track.”

There is an interesting element to the event this week and that is we have the defending champion of singles; Yuichi Sugita, and the defending champions of doubles, Sonchat and Sanchai Ratiwatana, in the draws. I was curious about the mindset of a champion coming back to defend his title and had the opportunity to speak with each of the boys.

“It is an up and down feeling,” says Sonchat Ratiwatana, “because on one side you feel something special about each venue where you have won a title before, but on the other side you feel a tremendous pressure to win again. One because you are defending a lot of points and two because anything less than winning again you feel like maybe you have dropped your level or something is wrong and also your ranking will also drop. I wonder if tennis fans recognize how tough it is for guys to repeat. I mean look at Ferrer winning three titles in a row in Auckland and in that wind, Rafa at Roland-Garros, and Federer everywhere. It might look easy, but winning once is fun, but repeating is a huge relief.”

“I try to have a mission other than winning,” Sugita says. “Because if I think too much about the points and what could happen if I don’t defend it is too difficult to play. I try to find something that I can improve on in my game and hopefully, that will help me to focus on getting better and not just the result.”

It is not often that you have a doubles team in a Challenger that have between them 9 career ATP World Tour titles and a Wimbledon championship, but we do this week with Colin Fleming and Jonathan Marray. Both Marray and Fleming have lived the good life on the ATP World Tour and though their Emirates ATP Doubles Team Rankings may have dropped a bit, they are very aware of how tough the competition is here on the Challenger Tour.

“The Challenger Tour doubles has gotten tougher,” says Fleming. “Actually, across the board from Tour events on down it has gotten much harder. Especially so as a lot more singles players are competing in the doubles. And they have figured out how to play and beat a good doubles team.

“The big thing is that you have to a destination. If you come in and play week by week and only focus on the results then you start chasing points which creates a negative pressure that can have adverse effects on how you not only perform individually, but how you view each other as teammates. Of course, we would like to win every match we play, but what our main goal is while we are here is to leave China a better team than when we came. That is the real pressure for us- to tick off the boxes that we identified as areas of improvement.”

Today we live in an age where statistics and technology can tell us just about everything that happened during a tennis match; win/loss record, unforced errors, ball speed, racquet face angle and amount of kilometers a player ran. What the stats cannot tell and what computers cannot measure is how far a man is willing to punish his body and or his mind, just to win a tennis match.