ATP CHALLENGER TOUR DISPATCH: YOKOHAMA

yoko
2014-Nov-13

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 Yokohama, Japan.

For some players the qualifying rounds of an ATP event are the best of times, and for others it can be the worst of times. Win three rounds and your name is added into the main draw. Stumble in the final round and the best you can hope for is to be a Lucky Loser. Here in Yokohama we have two such players,Takao Suzuki and Christopher Rungkat.

As you can imagine, players much prefer to be in the main draw. Main draw means you have a guarantee of hospitality and prize money. However, there are some advantages to playing the qualifying rounds. There is no such thing as a bad win on the professional tour and a tennis player gains confidence by winning matches. Qualifiers can be very dangerous and they often knock off seeds while making deep runs into the main draw. There are more than a few examples of qualifiers running the table all the way to the champion’s trophy.

It is autumn here in Japan and the leaves have turned from green to gold, the wind is cool and the early morning rain glistens on the black clay tiles of the sloped roofs. The tournament is hosted by the prestigious Keio University of Yokohama. The campus has four outdoor tennis courts laid out neatly in a row surrounded by tall elm, oak and maple trees. Two covered courts are available for practice and in case of rain. The match courts play medium quick and the balls do not bounce very high.

These conditions fit Japan’s Takao Suzuki game just fine. Suzuki has just qualified for the main draw without dropping a single set. His style is throw back tennis at its best; serve and volley, chip and charge and he still strings his racquet with all-natural gut. Suzuki does not hit the ball, rather he strokes it smoothly and his slice backhand is a work of art.

At the age of thirty-eight, he is loving tennis and his body language says just that. Takao Suzuki is something of a legend here in Japan. Many still remember the day that he very nearly orchestrated the greatest upset in the history of tennis. That was back in 2006, when Roger Federer was ranked number one in the world and Takao Suzuki was 1078. Granted a wild card by the organizers of the Japan Open, Suzuki stormed through his first two rounds to set up his quarterfinal meeting with Federer. The match would go the distance and was decided by a final set tiebreak which Roger Federer won 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (3). Though he lost the match, Suzuki won the hearts of Japan for his brave effort and relentless attacking of the world’s best player.

“Had I won that match I would have retired right away,” laughs Suzuki. “It could not have gotten any better than that.”

These days Suzuki can afford to laugh about the tough losses and smile during his matches. He knows it will not last forever and he is enjoying every chance to get out and mix it up with the younger boys.

Such is not the case for Christopher Rungkat of Indonesia. Going into the final round of qualifying against Ji Sung Nam, a player he has never lost against, Rungkat was feeling confident. Tennis can test a young man’s persistence like no other sport and on this day, Nam raised his game and Rungkat dropped his. Nam won in straight sets.

“This one really hurts,” admits Rungkat. “I worked really hard the last few months and have never been in better shape. I read about how David Ferrerdoes a lot of long distance running for his mind, and mountain bike intervals for his body. I have been following his example and I felt great coming into this tournament. I thought this week was going to be my breakthrough.”

Instead it was a breakdown. Rungkat would end up hanging around the tournament desk hoping to get into the main draw as a Lucky Loser. His luck did not improve. When the last singles match went on and Rungkat saw he was out, he laced up his running shoes and decided to go for a long run.

“I just have to keep doing the next right thing,” says Rungkat. “When you are living on the edge and depending on prize money to get you through to the next week, losing matches that you feel you should win cuts your heart out.”

The good thing for players like Christopher Rungkat is there is always next week. However, for many young men it is not about playing more events, rather doing more with the events that they are playing.