Hyeon Chung, it seemed, had played his part in the script, and he had played it well. But now it was time for him to step aside and let the star take over the stage.
In front of a fully packed in Rod Laver Arena—with the Rocket himself in attendance—Chung broke Djokovic twice to start the match. When Djokovic made his expected move to close the gap, Chung hung on long enough to take the first set to a tiebreaker. But now the Serb had the young Korean squarely in his sights. Djokovic began the breaker by stepping into the court, drilling a forehand winner down the line, and flashing a stare in Chung’s direction. The message was clear, and it was the same one we’d been hearing for the last 10 years: it was Big 4 time. Meaning, it was time for the kids to go home.
Except that the 21-year-old Chung, despite sporting his trademark, futuristic, soon-to-be-imitated white glasses, didn’t get the message. Instead, he answered with what can only be described as a Djokovichian shot-making display. He powered his returns down the middle of the court; he sprinted wide of the sidelines and did full-split stretches to dig the ball out; he hooked his heavy forehand crosscourt; he changed the direction of the ball at will and went down the line with the same ease that most players go crosscourt; he hit his backhand as lethally as his forehand. As Chung said later, he spent his youth trying to copy his “idol” Djokovic’s game. Mission, scarily, accomplished.
Chung won the tiebreaker 7-4. Unfortunately for Djokovic, the long rallies and heavy workload—this three-set match, 7-6 (4), 7-4, 7-6 (3), lasted three hours and 21 minutes—took their toll on his recovering body. By the end of the first set, he was flexing his recently injured elbow; by the second set, he was getting treatment.
“It’s not great,” Djokovic said afterward, when he was asked about his elbow. “Kind of the end of the first set it started hurting more. So yeah, I had to deal with it until the end of the match.”
“It’s frustrating, of course, when you have that much time and you don’t heal properly.” He says he’ll have his elbow reassessed before going on with his season.
But Djokovic was also, rightly, quick to praise Chung.
“He deserved to win, no question about it,” Djokovic said. “Whenever he was in trouble, he came up with some unbelievable shots, passing shots. Just from the back of the court, you know, he was like a wall.”
Chung’s crisp, cleaning-hitting performance brought to mind another word that we associate with Djokovic: clinical. As Djokovic said, there’s a wall-like quality to Chung’s game—a wall that can redirect the ball at any time and knock you off the baseline, that is. Chung doesn’t bother much with variety; he powers ahead with his ground-stroke drives and sticks to his corner-to-corner patterns. On the down side, that can make him predictable and help get his opponent into a groove. On the upside, it keeps him from over-thinking. In each of the first two sets, Djokovic came back from a break of serve down. But Chung never seemed to have any doubts about his game plan; he kept pounding and kept running, and stuck to his patterns.
Does that sound robotic? It’s not. Chung also showed a flair for the dramatic in this match, an ability to pull off a shot befitting the moment. Up 4-3 in the third-set tiebreaker, with Djokovic still very much in the contest, Chung ran to his right and hooked a forehand passing shot back across the court for a winner. Djokovic, who has made that same shot hundreds of times, could only watch and applaud as the ball flew past him.
The shoe was on the other foot, and the shot was on the other racquet, on this night. Instead of Big 4 time, it was Next Gen time. The first week in Melbourne has shown the growing breadth of the new men’s generation. Even as its most prominent member, Alexander Zverev, faltered, two new faces, Kyle Edmund and Chung, who won the inaugural Next Gen Finals last fall, have made breakthroughs.
As Chung put it afterward, when he was asked how he kept going through three hours of maximally taxing tennis:
“I’m younger than Novak,” Chung said with a laugh, “so I don’t care.”
Living the Dream
“This is real life,” the interviewer in Hisense Arena informed Tennys Sandgren.
Sandgren wasn’t so sure.
“Are you people real?” he asked the audience. They let out a cheer to reassure him.
You could forgive Sandgren for wondering. The 26-year-old, 97th-ranked Tennessee native had just beaten the No. 5 seed, Dominic Thiem, in five sets. Before last week, Sandgren had won a grand total of two ATP matches, neither of which had occurred at a major. He had tried to qualify five times before for the Australian Open main draw and failed. Now he’s the first American man to reach the quarterfinals at this tournament since Andy Roddick did it in 2010.
“I definitely had a pinch-me moment,” Sandgen said. “Wow, this is hopefully real. If I wake up now, I’m going to be real upset.”
How did Sandgren turn dream to reality? How did he lose a 9-7 fourth-set tiebreaker to Thiem, and then bounce back and win the fifth? While Thiem was grimacing and barking at his player box, Sandgren was the picture of thoughtful calm. He celebrated winners by absent-mindedly biting his fingernails, and walked around with the vaguely concerned look of someone trying to decide if he left the iron on back in his hotel room.
“I’m able to keep my emotions under control, which is a big deal, because I’m an emotional person,” Sandgren said. “That doesn’t go well with tennis, especially with a three-out-of-five-set match. You don’t have energy to waste on emotions.”
Tennis Channel on Tennys Sandgren:
That much we know. But Sandgren also said something new and interesting about why he’s suddenly been able to play at a higher level: He stopped worrying about the abstract idea of whether he “belonged” in these events or not.
“I used to put more of emphasis on that,” he said. “Are you good enough? Are you not good enough? Now I don’t really care. It’s just like you do some good things, and you do some things well.”
Instead of making his success, or lack of success, a judgement about his overall game, Sandgren has broken his game into parts, and tried to make the most of the things he knows he can do at a world-class level.
“It’s like I know that I serve well,” he said. “I know I can take care of business on my serve.” He proved that against Thiem by cracking 20 aces, making 74 percent of his first serves, and saving 10 of 12 break points.
“Then my movement is good,” he said. “Playing good defense.”
Sandgren showed that by patrolling the baseline and chasing down all but the best of Thiem’s whipping ground strokes. The American made just 38 errors over nearly four hours of play.
What may have surprised even Sandgren this past week has been his ability to rise to the level of his opponent. He said he needed to “take my chances” against Thiem, otherwise, he would eventually be ground down from the baseline. Having watched Sandgren a dozen times, I wouldn’t have guessed that he could take enough of those chances, or have enough firepower to out-gun Thiem. But every time he had an opening, he fired a bullet there, and he usually connected. Sandgren finished with 63 winners to go along with those 38 winners.
A dream? Yes. But it may not be one that Sandgren, who seems more than good enough for the big show of the ATP tour, has to wake up from any time soon.
As Su-Wei Hsieh and Angelique Kerber dueled through he first two sets of their fourth-round match on Monday, there was a collective drop in the jaws of tennis fans everywhere.
“Crazy,” one Aussie commentator said. “Just crazy, crazy tennis.”
Crazy good. Earlier in the week, I wrote about the “sporadic magic” of the 32-year-old Taiwan native’s game. The feathery, nonchalant drop-shot winners. The barely-struck slice overheads that land in front of the service line. The two-handed, perfectly timed, no-margin, no-backswing ground strokes that leave her opponents running helplessly in the wrong direction. The advanced geometry of her point construction.
For the first two sets against Kerber, Su-Wei Hsieh put them all together, and put on a magic show. All you could do was shake your head and smile at the freedom and creativity of her thought process, and her ability to execute her improvisations so effortlessly.
She calls it, naturally, “Su-Wei style,” and it’s as pure a form of individual expression as there is in tennis.
“I don’t have a plan,” she said after finally running out of gas against Kerber. “Actually my boyfriend was looking [at] her game earlier this morning. I forgot to ask him what she play, so I actually have no plan to go on the court.”
“I call like to play freestyle,” she said. “When the ball come, I decide at the last moment where to hit, so sometimes the girls say, ‘Oh, I don’t know where she hit.’ But sometimes I don’t know where I hit.”
More than a few commentators, online and on TV, believed Su-Wei style looked suspiciously like rec-tennis style. And her form is certainly unorthodox. But it just goes to show that there are limits to how much textbook form matters—it’s where the ball lands, not how it gets there, that counts.
You may have seen a rec player use two hands on both sides, or chop at the ball, or barely move her feet. But how many rec players have you seen create so much crazy tennis magic, against a former No. 1 player, in the process?
So long, Su-Wei Hsieh; hope to see you and your style again soon.
Read Joel Drucker and Nina Pantic on TENNIS.com as they report from the Australian Open, and watch them each day on The Daily Mix:
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