ATP CHALLENGER TOUR DISPATCH: SHANGHAI

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2014-Sep-06

Veteran tennis writer Robert Davis will be following the ATP Challenger Tour circuit this year and will write a series of reports. This week, he is at the ATP Challenger Tour event in Shanghai, China.

It is Zero Dark Thirty here at the Shanghai Renji Hotel and former Aussie great Peter McNamara is taking muster of the Chinese National team. Zhang Ze is present and so is Wu Di; well, barely, as it looks like half of Wu Di is still in the bed.  Finally, everyone is accounted for and the team, led by McNamara, sets off for their early morning run, which they do each day that they are together on tour. Many of the players and coaches remember McNamara doing the same with Grigor Dimitrov and Matthew Ebden, which has only added to McNamara’s street cred among the team.

“It is more about discipline and good habits than it is about running long distances,” says McNamara. “It sets a good example for the younger boys as well.”

We are at the Road To Shanghai Rolex Masters ATP Challenger Tour event. Though it is a Challenger tournament it has all the look and feel of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event, held at the same venue in October. It should not be a surprise to us since it is organised by the same management team, JUSS Events, led by Michael Luevano.

There are two stadium courts, one with a retractable roof, and about 20-plus outer courts, all of which have been freshly painted emerald green exterior and a dark shade of purple inside the lines.

One of the oldest laws of economics is that there is no such thing as a free lunch. Well, whoever said that never played in a tennis tournament managed by JUSS Events. Players and coaches are being treated to a buffet feast with grilled salmon, roast duck, plenty of healthy looking salad dishes and piles of pasta. All throughout the year, we have seen the quality of ATP Challenger Tour events rising.

Devvarman, players in lounge“You can tell from the first day if the tournament director has the care factor or not,” says Somdev Devvarman, who has participated in both the Shanghai Rolex Masters and the Challenger event. “And Michael definitely cares about the quality of his events.”

There are seven Japanese players in the main draw of singles this week. That says a lot about the success of the tennis industry in Japan. And right now the spotlight is shining bright on Kei Nishikori as he continues to re-write the Japanese tennis history books. Nishikori’s success will have a definite trickle-down effect on the Japanese players here as corporate sponsorships for tennis players and activities are sure to increase now.

Often, a Japanese company will choose to sponsor a player not so much for his position in the Emirates ATP Rankings, but because of the example he sets for the company and its employees. It is normal for Japanese players to give back to the sponsor by appearing at company family days or join in tennis clinics for adults and children. Tennis players often go to work for their sponsors once they have stopped playing professionally. One sponsor who is the COO of his company and has hired a former player, told me that he feels that the lessons learned by a professional tennis player, who travels around the world working with others and operates in diverse environments, is very valuable to his multi-national company.

For most of the Asian players here, this is the last week of competition before they go home for national team duty and prepare for the Asia Games, which is held every four years. It is like the summer Olympics for Asia and it is serious business. Asia offers plenty of incentives for tennis players in addition to competing on the ATP World Tour. Success in competitions like the South-east Asia Games, East Asia Games and Asian Games are rewarded with large cash bonuses. Even University Games medalists get significant financial rewards.

Danai Udomchoke has won gold medals in South-east Asia Games, Asian Games and University Games. For winning the gold in University Games, which Thailand hosted, Udomchoke received US$33,000 from the Ministry of Sport. Also, Udomchoke has had all of his tennis expenses paid for by Thailand’s largest beer company since he was the No. 1 national 12-and-under champion. Korea takes it one step further by awarding ‘points’ for national team service to a player’s lifetime pension plan, which can and often does translate into hundreds of extra dollars each month.

To give you a good idea of what these Asian competitions can mean to a player, consider the case of the best tennis player in Indonesia, Christopher Rungkat. In 2011, Rungkat won three gold medals in the South-east Asia Games; singles, mixed doubles and men’s team event. Rungkat, who is called ‘The Bandit’ by players on tour, was a hot property in Indonesia and each of his gold medals brought him US$25,000 in bonuses. He admits that he could have managed his money better then, although he did finance an apartment and bought a car. He rose to a career best No. 241 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Life was looking too easy for ‘The Bandit’.

DoublesThen it happened. He started losing things — slowly at first and then very quickly. First, he lost his way on the tour by making bad scheduling decisions and running into a few nagging injuries. Then he lost his money, followed by his ranking. He lost his sponsor. Finally, he lost his girlfriend. All in that order.

“And to make matters worse, I started losing my mind,” confesses Rungkat. “Exactly one year later, I had fallen from a career-high ranking to outside the Top 1,000. It was like I was in a slow motion car wreck. I had to go back all the way to playing qualies of ITF Futures events. I was feeling like the biggest loser. I was doubting everything about myself. I had to sell my car and rent out my new apartment and go play prize money tournaments in countries. Once I went to Myanmar on a one-way ticket and needed to make the semi-finals just to get back home and finals to pay for my next Futures tournament. That is pressure.

“It can be a bit annoying when people you meet ask you what you do, and then you tell them that you are a professional tennis player. The very first thing they ask is, ‘Oh yes, what is your ranking?’ And you answer, ‘Well, actually, I am 693 in singles and 446 in doubles.’ And they give you this look and then they pause because they don’t know what to say. One guy even asked me if I thought it was time to get a real job! Can you believe that? I wanted to say, ‘What are you ranked in the world in your job?’”

Now that is an interesting point. Imagine for a moment that you are an orthopedic surgeon or a lawyer. There are approximately 196 countries in the world. Would you be happy to be ranked among the top 700 surgeons or lawyers in the world? Also consider the fact that most if not all pro players began putting in two and three hour days of training by the age of 10. These guys have definitely ticked off the 10,000-hour training theory box.

If you want to hear a really interesting story next time you meet a tennis player, ask him what he had to go through to get that professional ranking?