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ATP CHALLENGER TOUR DISPATCH: SHENZHEN
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 Shenzhen.
For those watching the match betweenJordan Thompson and Alexander Kudryavtsev at the Gemdale ATP Challenger International Shenzhen, the biggest question was: who would burst first – Thompson’s bowels or Kudryavtsev’s brain? Before the match Thompson was suffering from a queasy stomach that had him doubled over and in obvious pain throughout the match, and Kudryavtsev was suffering a migraine headache due to his poor play.
Now, if you have never seen Kudryavtsev play tennis, you would not know that absolutely anything is capable of flying off his racquet. It could be a winner from the most unlikely of places, an unforced error that even your grandmother could make, or a big chunk of graphite from a smashed racquet. Off the court, Kudryavtsev is thoughtful, sincere, and an all-round good guy. On a good day, when he has his A-game he is capable of competing with the best of the best.
So that was the situation on Centre Court. Neither player was in outstanding form, but with Thompson leading 6-3, 2-0 he looked the likely winner, despite his ill health. One of the things that makes tennis unique from most other sports is the scoring system. There is no time limit on a set or a match. A player cannot simply run out the clock. He must win the last point. Alfred Hitchcock said that good drama should, “Always make the audience suffer as much as possible.” Hitchcock might have been talking about tennis. And as far as audience suffering, Thompson’s coach Mark Draper watching the drama unfold – and thousands of others on ATP World Tour’s live stream – sure got some of that.
“I injured my neck and I did not train at all week,” Kudryavtsev told me after the match. “I was not happy with my form.”
That was fairly obvious to all in attendance, especially chair umpire Chahoon Im. He decided that Kudryavtsev crossed the conduct line for the third time and announced a game penalty gifting Thompson a 3-0 lead in the second set. It was not long until 3-0 stretched to a 5-2 lead. When Thompson readied himself for the return at 5-4, 0/40 (triple match point) the match looked done and dusted. It was precisely at that time that Kudryavtsev realised that a tennis court is 78 feet long by 36 feet wide. Adjustments made, he started making ball after ball. All in all, Kudryavtsev saved six match points in the second set before running out the third set, 6-1.
“After the second set I knew I was going to win the match,” said Kudryavtsev. “He was dead. He could not run. No chance.”
One of the interesting things about China is the elegant translations from Chinese to English. For instance, take the note that was on my table at a local restaurant the other night, ‘Please eat civilised. Do not waste food.’ That is good advice, I thought. One can imagine the terrible stress China must be under to feed 1.5 billion people three times a day. Glancing over the menu I noted with curiosity the following choices: ‘Unbridled Lover Fruit tea’ and ‘Comely Pretty Woman Fruit tea’ and ‘Summer Sweetheart sundae’ or ‘First Love sundae’. Maybe the reason that the population continues to increase here is because the menu appeals more to the libido than the palate. Another thing that is admirable, but maybe a bit hazardous, is how the official hotel is obsessed with mopping the very nice marble floors that adorn the lobby, restaurant and hallways. I have observed more than a few unlucky guests slipping and falling to the floor this week.
Out here on the ATP Challenger Tour it is as if you are in the trenches with the men as they fight their battles. They are more accessible and you get to be up close with them when they win, lose, suffer or self-destruct. You can develop relationships easier out here and hear the back stories of how they went up the Emirates ATP Rankings, came down or just hung around. One of the biggest obstacles for many of the players is overcoming the pecking order and navigating the perils of the learning curve, without accumulating too much emotional baggage. South Korea’s Hyeon Chung is a good example of a young player who has made the rapid transition from top junior to knocking on the door of the Top 100.
However, for most, it is a period of intense frustration. A mix of joy, pain and self-doubt. Some of the players have financial difficulties, others have physical question marks and nearly all have mental issues to work through. The more you know about a player’s background the more you can enjoy or suffer his journey. Just this week I got to meet Richard Becker of Germany. Becker is one of those young men that looks you in the eye when he talks, gives you a firm handshake and says exactly what is on his mind, agreeable or not. He appears to possess the Germanic traits of organisation and hard work. He is tall, with a big serve and forehand, and plays exactly like his coach, Alexander Waske – hard, aggressive and intimidating. In fact, you can often hear Becker before you see him playing. He can be argumentative and is prone to shouting. Becker’s back story is that last year he played 39 tie-breaks, lost 26 and won 13. Nine of those losses came in the final set. Knowing all of this, you can now understand his pain.
“Yeah, I lost a lot of tie-breaks last year,” says Becker. “I am the kind of guy who is working harder when I lose, so it gets even more frustrating when you lose those close matches. Because you think that you do everything right and still lose, and it is not easy to accept. I want to win the match. I want to have it in my own hands. I felt like I needed to work on my body language and show more belief. So I decided to hire an acting teacher. Sometimes, I shout on purpose to get the emotion or to energise myself.”
That might explain what happened at 5-5 in the first set against Blaz Kavcic, when Becker served and then shanked the ball out after the return. Becker immediately went over to the ball boy and collected the errant ball and handed it rather routinely to the chair umpire, explaining the ball was broken. Somehow the umpire missed the call and refused to grant a let. At first, Becker was rather pragmatic explaining the situation, but the umpire was not going to overrule himself. It was then then that Becker grew animated and began shouting, “The ball is broken… the ball is broken… the ball is broken.” And continuing, now more loudly, ‘THE BALL IS BROKEN! THE BALL IS BROKEN! THE BALL IS BROKEN!!!’
I guarantee you there was not a soul in the stadium that could tell if Becker was really furious or simply acting, but one thing is for sure, he definitely has a future in acting if tennis does not work out.
Chen Ti of Taiwan, who lost to Becker in the first round, is another example of a player who is determined to do their very best. Ti is a bit of a legend out here among the players for his ability to play so many weeks per year. In 2012, he played 36 weeks. In 2013, he played an incredible 42 tournaments. And this year he has played nine out of 10 weeks. Ti plays both singles and doubles.
“I enjoy playing tennis so much,” Ti told me. “If I am healthy I want to play every day. Why not? Every week there is an opportunity to improve. I am motivated and I love this sport.”
“I have tremendous respect for Chen Ti,” says Toshihide Matsui. “I have never ever seen the guy give less than 100 per cent in singles and doubles and you know with him he is either on the court or up in the air. He is incredible.”
Incidentally, Becker beat Ti 4-6, 6-3, 7-6(5).
Tennis players are not always perfect, but there are many out here on the ATP Challenger Tour who are making progress. You are sure to see them on the sport’s biggest stages in the near future.