Be Not Afraid of Growing Slowly
by Robert Davis|
Fulfilling the dream of his late father to become Chinese Taipei’s first Top 100 player, Yen-Hsun Lu has been equally motivated by the need to use tennis to provide for his family. His journey has not been without its hardships.
The gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.
- Ancient Chinese Proverb
You hear Yen-Hsun Lu playing before you see him: The sharp bursts of air that shoot from his lips like an automatic weapon being fired and the screeching of his shoes carving up the court are his trademarks. With lean leg muscles pumping like pistons in a race car and cat-like footwork, it would come as no surprise if smoke started rising from his socks. Yen-Hsun Lu, or ‘Rendy’ as he is known on the ATP World Tour, is fast - very fast.
Still, for all his speed and determination, Yen-Hsun Lu could not sprint his way up the South African Airways ATP Rankings. Just the opposite: Since turning professional eight years ago, he has been forced to crawl, and at times claw, one rung at a time. Only to be slapped back down, over and over again. For the 26 year old from Chinese Taipei has persevered along a journey where he has had to cope with the sudden loss of a father and a stream of injuries.
Yen-Hsun Lu was only 17 years old when his father died of a sudden heart attack. Though he was a top player and on the ITF junior team, the shock affected him so much that he briefly quit tennis soon after his father’s death.
“After my father passed away,” Lu begins, “I did not want to play tennis anymore. My family was supporting me to go back to the tennis court. But I could not; I did not have the spirit. And then one day I remembered that my father had a dream that his son can maybe play Wimbledon some day and become Top 100. So, I used this as my energy because I wanted to make my father’s dream come true.”
His decision to quit did not last long. With his elder brother, Wei-Ju, who introduced him to tennis at the age of eight, entering university, it would be up to ‘Rendy’ to now support the family. And there was only one way: to earn money by playing tennis professionally. Yen-Hsun Lu now was on a mission. He would have to take care of the family with his prize money from tennis. It would prove to be much easier said than done.
To know the road ahead, ask those coming back.
If he were going to make it, it was obvious he would need someone to show him the way. Never before had Chinese Taipei had a player ranked inside the Top 100 and Rendy needed guidance. Enter Dirk Hordoff, coach and manager of Rainer Schuettler. Hordoff spotted the young Lu and saw something special in him. He talked it over with Schuettler and they invited Lu to train with the former Australian Open finalist.
“When I first met him (Lu) he was very shy,” Schuettler remembers. “But he was extremely polite and very respectful.”
“Like most Asian players he is a very hard worker,” Hordoff says. “He gets his confidence by working hard. While he is always very fair to other people, he is very self critical.”
It is winter in Hamburg and Hsu Su-Fen, Rendy’s mother, is wrapped in a heavy coat sitting courtside at a club where Hordoff is conducting a training session with Schuettler and her son. She is scribbling on a pad of paper.
“When he was first invited for the winter preparation he came to Hamburg with his mother,” Hordoff remembers. “She was sitting in every practice session and wrote down which exercises we made, how we made them, and even made sketches of the practices. After some weeks I asked her what she was doing, and Rendy explained to me that he asked her to make [the sketches] so that if he comes home he can do the same exercises. He takes his tennis and his practices that serious.”
Be the first to the field and the last to the couch.
While attempting to push himself to the maximum on and off the court each day to achieve his goals, Lu’s body was not willing to cooperate. The injuries started coming, one after another, until they began to pile up.
“His injuries cost him a lot of time,” says Hordoff. “One reason was the lack of knowledge how to build up his body in his junior times. After understanding what to do and how to work, he is now fit and healthy and able to compete at the highest standard.”
In June of 2004, Lu finally began to reap the reward for all his hard work. A third round showing at Queen’s Club with wins over Wayne Arthurs and World No. 3 Guillermo Coria showed promise. Finally, he thought, he had arrived. It was not to last.
Once again, his body began to break down. Now it was the shoulder, and when that got a little bit better, next came the lower back. The problem seemed to be that when one part of his body was injured or weak, Lu pushed the rest of his body so much that the extra stress caused an injury somewhere else.
For much of the time Lu could be seen serving at half-speed during matches, or wincing in pain when he was forced to bend low for a ball. In the players’ lounge many a player and coach thought Lu foolish to continue playing when he was obviously injured and in pain. What they did not know, was that for Lu the prize money, even for a first-round loss, was better than nothing for his family. And he had his mother and brother to think about first.
As his ranking dropped, he would spend the next three and half years wrapped up in tape and strapped with ice bags competing primarily on the Challenger Tour and occasionally in ATP World Tour events when he qualified. Though there were plenty of injury-filled days of doubt, his work ethic never once waivered.
“I always tell myself I should do and try my best for everything,” admits Lu. “After a few years I don’t want to look back on my tennis career and feel that if I worked harder maybe something would have been different. What I mean to say is that I don’t want to feel regret that I did not do my best.”
Though Yen-Hsun Lu is widely praised for his hard work, there is more, another side to the young man that has endeared him to many.
Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.
Professor Yuan-Tseh Lee, one of Chinese Taipei’s most famous men and an avid tennis player, is no stranger to receiving awards. Winning the 1986 Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of chemistry took care of that. But the award he is about to receive now holds a special place in his heart.
Lu and WTA Tour player Shu-Wei Hsieh enter Professor Lee’s office and each shake hands with the professor. Then with both hands, Lu politely raises the Asian Hopman Cup to Professor Lee, presenting him with the trophy in gratitude for all that the professor has done to help tennis players in his country.
“Professor Lee has done so much for all players here in Taiwan,” Lu says. “He has helped us by giving time and wisdom and also, finding sponsors.”
“Receiving a beautiful Asian Hopman Cup (2007) from Rendy and Shu-Wei was a thrilling experience,” admits Professor Lee. “It was beyond my dream. The Hopman Cup is now displayed in my office in the Academia Sinica.”
“Professor Lee is much more than just a friend,” Lu begins. “He has become like a second father to me. He always makes time for me, but he has not only helped me but so many players.”
“Rendy is very loyal,” Hordoff says. “And he never forgets those that help him. To see how he cares about his family and Professor Lee is really very special.”
“Rendy has gone through a very hard time, including the loss of his father, his tennis tutor at the tender age and injuries,” says Professor Lee. “But he did not disappoint anybody who has rooted for his success. He is a good role model for young people in Taiwan.”
How good a role model has he been for the development of Chinese Taipei tennis? Just ask Yang Tsung Hua, who in 2008 became the country’s first-ever ITF top ranked junior boy.
“Before Rendy showed us, we did not know what it takes to be great,” says Hua. “He not only gave me advice for on-court training and fitness, but he showed me by example how to run for every ball, and how to do your best at every practice. I can see by him how working hard and being professional is the way to make my dream come true.”
Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.
In April of this year, Lu reached a career-high No. 55 in the South African Airways ATP Rankings. His impressive, steady rise has not gone unnoticed.
Lu’s father never got to watch his son play at Wimbledon, in the Olympics or reach the Top 100. But his dream was not in vain. For that dream was realised by a family who never forgot, and a son who never gave up.
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