ATP CHALLENGER TOUR DISPATCH: KYOTO

d4
2015-Feb-26

Tatsuma Ito, Bumpei Sato, Go Soeda and Takao Suzuki enjoy an off-court chat in Kyoto.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 Kyoto.

If football is the ‘Beautiful Game’ and chess is the ‘Royal Game’, what might they call tennis? I suppose that renowned author Timothy Gallwey got it right when he called it, the ‘Inner Game’.

One could forgive John Millman, who is No. 148 in the Emirates ATP Rankings, for scratching his head after losing the second set to No. 309-ranked Takuto Niki in his first round match at the $50,000 Kyoto Challenger. Just last month Millman was up a set and a break against Roger Federer at the Brisbane International presented by Suncorp before eventually losing 4-6, 6-3, 6-3.

And what about his Aussie mate, World No. 235 Jordan Thompson, who lost in a third-set tie-break against Kei Nishikori 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 at the Kooyong exhibition event, but bounced back the next day to beat Feliciano Lopez 7-6, 6-3. Both of these young men are here in Kyoto, Japan this week for the 51st Shimadzu All Japan Indoor Tennis Championships. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about the depth of the ATP World Tour and ATP Challenger Tour.

Fifty one years is a long time to be hosting a tennis tournament, but Kyoto seems to age well. It was only a little over 1,000 plus years ago that Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan. Today, the ancient and modern Kyoto co-exist in noble fashion. Narrow alleys and traditional wooden homes, with gentle sloping roofs, stand beside modern brick homes and Lawson’s convenience stores. And you would be hard pressed to find a better taxi service than in Kyoto, with their overly polite drivers who maintain spotless, white starched linen seat covers in their cabs.

If tennis gods do exist, as claims Gordon Forbes in his classic book, ‘A Handful of Summers’, I believe that they would be pretty happy here in Kyoto, where, according to the guidebook in my hotel room, there are more than 2,000 temples and shrines. The game of tennis teases. How else can you explain the sudden shifts in momentum in the game of tennis?

This is exactly what happened to Takuto Niki at 2-2 in the third set versus Millman. After playing a great match, Niki suddenly committed 13 unforced errors over the next 18 points allowed Millman to reel off four straight games, while hitting only two winners.

“That is why I love the game of tennis so much,” admits Millman. “You might have the higher ranking than your opponent, but there is nowhere to hide. You have to stay on the job until you get it done.”

Thompson says, “I think many times the lower-ranked player takes their foot off the pedal and starts to think about the set or match being over. And then they let you back in the match by committing unforced errors. It has happened to me plenty of times, where I had the lead, then lost it and then you start second guessing yourself.”

One of the things that is often overlooked in men’s professional tennis is the continuing education that a man gets through constant international travel. Most of the guys on the ATP Challenger Tour that I have met and talked with are up-to-date on geo-politics and are culturally sensitive of their surroundings. Even so, Japan raises the bar on the subject of etiquette.

For instance, blowing your nose in public or talking in a loud voice in front of others is frowned upon. And heaven help you if you don’t leave your chopsticks in the proper place after eating. But my favourite custom here is saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. It takes a while to get through all the preliminaries and even then I am still not clear who is supposed to take the first step towards the door, but eventually someone does and hopefully nobody has been offended.

Millman and Thompson have proven that the skill set among professional tennis players is not always the over-riding factor in the result and that Rankings are often deceiving. Where the real challenge lies for so many of these men is overcoming the pecking order and safeguarding the self-confidence along the way.