ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Kobe


You know that you are in Japan when every detail of your trip goes, well, the way it is supposed to go. It is the first time they have hosted an ATP Challenger Tour event here in Kobe and the organising committee is not leaving anything to chance. Especially, the all-important task of transportation to and from the site. The shuttle bus schedule from the hotel to venue is as complex as any Tokyo train station and I noticed a few players taking photos so that they would be sure to be on time.

The bus ride from the official hotel to the venue takes about 40 minutes and the road winds like a ribbon up and over the hills of Hyogo prefecture through dense forest with tall bamboo stalks that sway back and forth in the wind. It is autumn here and the forest leaves have turned orange, red and yellow. Morning rains bring out a heavy earthen smell and there are plenty of people out walking the footpaths and trekking up and down the hills.

The indoor tennis center is located in the Miki Disaster Management Park, named so as it was here than an emergency relief center for the massive earthquake which struck on January 17, 1995 killing more than 6,000 victims operated.

When Sanchai Ratiwatana served his third double fault in two service games it was twin brother Sonchat who slammed his racquet to the court creating another tremor in Kobe. It was only a practice set, but three weeks ago the brothers had a late night meeting after losing in Ningbo and decided that if they were going to get back to the ATP World Tour then they would need to make some serious changes to their game and the way they prepared. The Thai twins have won an ATP record 37 Challenger doubles titles. But seven years has passed since they won their last ATP World Tour event (2008 Chennai).

“It is not just our ranking that has dropped,” confessed Sonchat Ratiwatana. “I feel like our expectations have dropped too.”

“I know that my serve has to improve,” admits Sanchai. “I cannot go on like this. I have to commit to making it better and not accept just getting a high percentage.”

The twins also realised that they would need to develop better practice habits that would result in higher quality training and fewer unforced errors. Their nickname on the ATP Tour might be Thainamite, but even they admit that their game is less bang and more finesse.

One player who does have plenty of bang in his game this year is John Millman of Australia. Millman is coached by Scott Draper and I have been following them and Millman’s steady rise up the Emirates ATP Rankings all year. He began 2015 at No. 278 and this summer during the US hard court swing he reached a career high of No. 71. Millman won two Challengers this time last year (Taralgon and Yokohama), after dealing with a fair bit of injuries the last few years. Draper has been the picture of patience.

“It has been a good year, but I have a fair bit of points to defend,” Millman said. “I need to finish strong and stay in the top 100 and then start getting ready for the Aussie summer tour.”

Things were not looking good for Japan’s Taro Daniel in the quarter-finals, when Stephane Robert of France stepped up to the baseline to serve for the match at a set and 5-4. Though Robert had been in complete control all match, at 30/30 the crowd could sense that the momentum hung in the balance and Taro Daniel might still have a chance. It is in times like these when the old adage comes to mind,

“When the glutes start to quiver, does the man step up and deliver? Or back up and quiver?”

Daniel definitely stepped up and delivered and two points later he broke Robert’s serve and it was not long until Daniel was racing away with the third set 6-2.

It is knives over forks here as Kobe beef is prized the world over for its unique taste. I had heard of Kobe beef before but never tried any. Seems that the cows are given litres of beer to make them hungry, then massaged with sake to keep their muscles relaxed and finally, serenaded to sleep with classical music. Hell, it does not sound like too bad a life at all until you realize that eventually they will get the nod from the butcher. Yan Bai of China went to a Kobe steakhouse and on the bus ride back he told us all about it. It was then that Riccardo Ghedin asked him the price.

“17,000 Yen (about $140.00 usd) for one person,” Bai said.

“Mama Mia!” Ghedin shot back.

“Yes, but it comes with a side salad and order of rice,”

Bai said matter as a matter of fact.

I will not repeat what Ghedin’s further comments. Most of the players skipped Kobe’s expensive steak for the much cheaper alternative here in Japan- the Izakaya

which is like a pub or tavern. You can tell an Izakaya by the red paper lanterns that hang out in front. Once you pass through the low hanging curtains that force you to bow when entering, Japanese traditional cooking really comes alive. Charcoal hibachi grills smoke as skewers of grilled meat, root vegetables and hot rice sake served in ceramic flasks are all set out in front of you by polite and pretty little waitresses who kneel down when passing the food to the table.

For the professional tennis player in Japan life is good. Maybe a little too good. Plenty of sponsors, events and adoring fans. Soon, the powers that be of Japanese tennis might be asking the same questions that the French tennis experts have been asking of themselves for quite a while now- when things are so good at home does that help or hinder the player when he tours abroad?