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ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Taipei

Taipei, Taiwan

Frank© Robert DavisCoach Frank has been developing Taiwan’s top tennis players for more than 35 years.

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 Taipei, Taiwan.

There is plenty of tension in the air during the first-round match on centre court as American Austin Krajicek is battling Taiwan’s Jimmy Wang in an opening-set tie-break. We are indoors this week on a fast supreme court; and that always makes for great shot-making. Both Krajicek and Wang are providing the crowd with plenty of chances to applaud.

Like any good tournament director, Phillip Lu strives to make all the players here feel welcome and cater to their needs, but he also has to think of ticket sales, sponsors and media. Losing one of your star players like Wang in the first round is a tough one to swallow - especially so, when rumour has it that top seed and the pride of Taiwan, Yen-Hsun Lu, will pull out of his first-round match today due to a hamstring injury. Eventually, Wang prevails and routs Krajicek in the second set 6-0, much to the delight of the partisan crowd and the relief of the tournament director.

The site for this week’s event is the National Taiwan University, which will host the 2017 Summer Universiade – the international University Games – so there is plenty of effort by all concerned to make sure the tournament is well organised.

SantaiziWe have an interesting title sponsor this week, Santaizi. According to a local source, he is the most common god worshipped in this land of predominantly Buddhists and Taoists. What the tournament organisers hope to achieve is to display traditional Taiwanese culture and the innovation of their sports industry. They even came up with a catchy tournament slogan: “Balls on fire, Hearts on fire”.

Gilles Muller and Samuel Groth must have gotten the memo. Watching this first-round clash of titans from the side of the court, it is tough to tell about their hearts being on fire, but their balls certainly have plenty of smoke. Two grown men size 6’4” do not tiptoe around the tennis court, rather they see the ball and run to it and bash it with brute force. Both players employ a classic serve-and-volley style, with the only rallies we see coming during the warm up period. Muller goes on to win the match in two tie-break sets.

Speaking of Muller, he won the ATP Challenger Tour event last week in Shenzhen and is off to a very good start this year. Muller reached the final in Astana (l. to Golubev 6-4, 6-4) and won Guadalajara (d. Kudla 6-2, 6-2). There is not much on the tennis rollercoaster that he has not seen or done, especially when you consider that he has beaten Andy Roddick (US Open 2005) and Andre Agassi (Washington 2004) in the United States. Muller attained a career-high Emirates ATP Ranking of No. 42 back in 2011.

“The Roddick match may have hurt me,” explains Muller. “I know that sounds strange, but maybe I was guilty of thinking that I had arrived already and did not keep pushing so hard. Looking back I think that I could have done a better job of working after those big wins. I could have handled the situation better.”

Muller is definitely not the first, nor will he be the last, to learn that lesson. Handling the sudden fame and fortune that often comes with professional tennis can be tricky in the best of times for many a young man. That is where the importance of a good coach comes in.

MullerSome players here in Taipei have opted for former players to help guide them on the tour. Like Amir Weintraub, who has enlisted Amos Mansdorf. Or Marco Chiudinelli, who is working with Jan Vacek. And Gilles Muller is being coached by his doubles partner, Jamie Delgado. Their partnership began late last year and is definitely going well.

“Jamie helps me in singles, and I help him in doubles,” Muller jokes.

Interestingly enough, the role of a coach is one of the main subjects discussed among some of the players in the transport shuttle one evening.

“I feel that a player needs certain coaches at certain stages of his career,” says Rajeev Ram. “And that the coach needs to recognise that coaching is not a one-size-fits-all method. The best I have ever seen was Craig Tiley when he coached me at University of Illinois. He was a master at making sure each of us players got what we needed to perform at our best.

“And Craig O’Shannessy has a particular method and style of video analysis that might not suit every player, but it certainly helped me to improve my game,” continues Ram.

For the Ratiwatana twins, having a coach is not about helping them with technique or showing them the ropes of the Tour. They are older than their coach, Braen Aneiros, whom they share with Yuichi Sugita. In fact, ‘Thainamite’, as they are called, were winning ATP Challengers when their coach was still playing college tennis.

“We need a coach to tell us the truth about our matches,” says Sonchat Ratiwatana. “Even though we are twins and nobody knows each other better than we do, it is not easy to be brother and coach at the same time. Braen can see what we cannot see, and he is a good enough player that he can do the drills with us.”

Taipei“As long as he does not have to move too much,” jokes brother Sanchai. “Seriously, we know that he cannot feel what we are feeling on the court sometimes, but he has the advantage of seeing what we cannot see during the match. We don’t care what our coach has done, all we care about is what he can do to make us better.” 

And that is exactly the motive that drives local legend and longtime Taiwan coach Chen ‘Frank’ Chan. Frank has been developing Taiwan’s top tennis players for more than 35 years.

“Coaching is my life,” Frank says. “I live for the challenge of finding ways to make my kids improve, even just a little bit. That is my reward.”

There is an old saying that goes, “Kids don’t care what the coach knows, unless they know that the coach cares.”

Watching how both junior and senior Taiwanese players dote on coach Frank, it is plainly obvious that they realise how much he cares about each of them.

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