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ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Nanchang

Tianjin, China

Agor© Robert DavisRyan Agor of Australia passes the time during travel between tournaments.

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 Nanchang, China.

This week, Ryan Agar of Australia and half a dozen players, coaches and trainers found themselves stuck on a plane for six hours waiting for take-off. Agor, who was on his way to Tianjin to sign in for the qualifying, nervously eyed his watch as the clock ticked closer to the deadline. Thankfully, the ATP supervisor allowed him to sign in by phone. How did Agor handle the stress and frustration? By whipping out his trusty ukulele and entertaining the passengers with a few tunes.

By now we are all used to the great facilities of China’s tennis centers. However, that did not stop some of us from gaping in amazement as our transport bus, complete with Dolce & Gabbana upholstered seats, rolled into Nanchang International Tennis Center. Now we know how the Carthaginians must have felt when they saw the great Roman Colosseum for the first time. This sports facility boasts both indoor and outdoor tennis courts, a gym that has 30 new treadmills, 20 racing bikes for spinning classes, an ultra-modern weight room, plenty of locker rooms and, most importantly, one very nice stadium court that seats 2,500.

There can be no doubt that China’s tennis industry is developing at a fast pace. The driving force behind China’s ATP Challenger circuit is Suns Sport. This year they have already hosted five Challenger events and one more on the schedule (Shanghai). Next year they plan to have even more ATP Challenger Tour events.

Some might ask how hosting international events helps your country to develop. The simple answer is that it encourages the entire tennis industry to expand. For example, we encountered one White Badge umpire too shy to give her name for this Dispatch. She moonlights as an honour student about to finish her Master’s Degree in Physiology. When not calling lines or writing her thesis, she works with tournament organisers, sharing her experience to help them better operate their events.

But in order to dig deeper beneath the surface I turned to Juan Manual Esparcia, veteran ATP World Tour coach from Spain. He has been contracted this year by an elite sports team in Beijing to develop tennis. If anyone would know what needs to be done to raise the bar of tennis in China, it is Esparcia. As Spain has dominated tennis for the last decade, Esparcia has something by which to measure China’s development.

“I like the challenge of trying to help not just the players but also the coaches get to the top level,” Esparcia begins. “I think that China is doing a few things right. Most important is that they put the tournaments inside the country. So many ATP Challengers and three ATP World Tour events are here now. And they have a lot of ITF Futures. That is something very important for the players, because if they don’t have the opportunity to see what the top level is like then they will not feel that they have the chance.

"Having the opportunity to have tournaments in your home country, which also brings foreign players and coaches here, allows China’s players and coaches not only to learn but also feel like they can do the same things in professional tennis.”

When asked about the difference between the players at the Challenger level versus the Tour level, Esparcia drew from his years on the ATP World Tour.

“On the Tour, guys put so much importance on the small things like preparing for practise, injury prevention and nutrition. And they do these things right every single day,” Esparcia explains. “They pay attention to every detail every single day.”

Next Generation
Ever since Thailand’s Paradorn Srichaphan and Japan’s Kei Nishikori became ATP World Tour stars, agents and talent scouts have been scouring Asia for the next big thing. Well, they believe that they have finally found him in Korea. And he is here this week. His name is Hyeon Chung. If you need more proof than so-called expert opinion, just read what is written on the side of his racquet bag: "The Next Big Thing."

At 18 years of age, Chung already sits at No. 299 in the Emirates ATP Rankings. Though he is still eligible to compete in the ITF Juniors and next week will travel to Wimbledon for the Junior Championships, his results on the professional circuit have raised quite a few eyebrows. Already he has won a handful of ITF Futures events.

His thick-rimmed eyeglasses might make him seem out of place on a tennis court, but don't be fooled by the schoolboy look. Once the game is on, Chung ignites, hugging the baseline for dear life while using a ‘grip it and rip it’ style. This kid is not timid or shy; he has a bit of the mongrel in him. Hyeon Chung is definitely a blue-chip prospect to be the next Asian star.

Last Men Standing
This week all eyes are on Blaz Kavcic and Alexander Kudryavtsev. The last two weeks they have been the last men standing in Fergana and Tianjin, with Kavcic coming out ahead both times. On the court, they make for interesting styles: Kavcic is a meat-and-potatoes man who works as hard as he grinds and is willing to pay a heavy price each and every time he walks on the court.

Meanwhile, Kudryavtsev marches to the beat of his own drum. His game style is a wild mix: shot selection that defies logic and a flat, rocket backhand down the line that reminds us of another Russian, Marat Safin. A frustrated Kudryavtsev can smash more racquets than Andy Roddick and Safin combined - and that is just during practise. Pity the poor coach who tells Kudryavtsev to keep calm.

I have spoken to many of the Asian players the last two weeks and they are all smiles about the increase of events in Asia. For the longest time they have had to travel far and wide for international competition. And they are quick to recognise both Srichaphan and Nishikori for blazing the trail to the top of the ATP World Tour.

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