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ATP Challenger Tour Dispatch: Kaohsiung City

Kaohsiung City, Taiwan

Referee© Alex Lo (All other photos: Dennis Lin)Stephane Cretois, ATP Supervisor, presides over the draw ceremony at Kaohsiung City in Taiwan.

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 Kaohsiung City, Taiwan.

The ATP Challenger Tour rolled back into Taiwan this week for the OEC Kaohsiung Open. The prize money is big, $125,000, with the winner taking home $18,000 of the pot and 125 Emirates ATP Rankings points. It certainly adds extra incentive to the players. And believe you me, a few of the boys have risked more than just heat stroke out there this week, fighting for dear life to do whatever it takes to win a match. The always unpredictable Alexander Kudryavtsev showed some real heart and guts by defying doctors’ orders to rest his injured back this week.

They say that every tennis match has at least one of the following themes; man versus man, man versus inner-man and man versus nature. Here in Kaohsiung, it is definitely the latter. The guys are competing with the threat of a typhoon one day and unforgiveable sun every other day, where at best the heat is simply brutal. Heck, here you wake up in a sweat just knowing what is out there waiting for you on court. Do not even think of coming here if you have not done the hard yards in training. Even when the sun sets, the humidity can strike a young man down. 

Just last night it was Asia’s rising star Hyen Chung, of Korea, who was in a nasty fit of full body cramps and carried off the court to the hospital in an ambulance. Even Thailand’s Danai Udomchoke got smacked down with full body cramps and spent two days at the Kaohsiung General Hospital last year. That probably explains why this year, ATP Supervisor, Stephane Cretois, ordered matches to be begin in the afternoon.

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We might be Taiwan, but it certainly seems more like we are in Japan. An amazing 10 Japanese players are in the main draw and with all their coaches and trainers in tow, there is no wonder Tournament Director Philip Lu has a staff member standing by who is fluent in the Japanese language.

Yuichi Sugita is fresh off qualifying for his first ever Grand Slam championship at Wimbledon, a few weeks ago, and is the No. 3 seed here. Sugita probably did not expect to be down a set and a break to Taiwan’s young gun Liang-Chi Huang. But that was where Sugita was until he found a way to break back and take the second set in a tie-break. Then experience prevailed over youth and Sugita ran out the third in convincing fashion by the score of 6-1. Sugita has played enough professional tennis around the world to know that whenever you play a rising star in his backyard, you have to expect the local boy to go for broke.

It has long been said that the ATP World Tour is one big emotional roller-coaster, with little time to celebrate and no time to cry. Nobody took that ride this week more than Japan’s Takuto Niki. In his first round he survived death, while down a set and facing two match points in the second set tie-break against Ivo Klec. He managed to win that one, but got little time to celebrate as next day he was up against Russian Alexander Kudryavtsev. This time the tables turned and Niki was up a set and had two match points in the second set tie-break.

“The first match point came on his second serve,” Niki explained. “I got tight. I thought about a place in the quarter-finals of a $125,000 and the [Emirates ATP] Rankings points, and I did not know what to do with the return. Attack it or just try and make it.”

Actually, he did neither. Niki rolled the return into the bottom of the net. Kudryavtsev would go on to win the tie-break and the match.

I caught up with Tournament Director Lu for a few minutes. We might be participating in a Challenger but it has all the look and feel of an ATP World Tour event. The official hotel is a luxurious five-star and the player’s lounge has a free buffet of grilled meats, fish, vegetables and plenty of carbs. And even the water bottles and court towels are customised and monogrammed with the tournament logo.

Guide book and reception“Our ultimate goal is to host an ATP World Tour event here,” admits Lu. “We want to show the players, referees and ATP that we can do a great job. We want a good report and are doing our best to achieve that. Taking care of details and having an experienced staff, with a good attitude, is our strategy. Plus, we have a lot of volunteers involved. It is our desire to offer a great experience for everyone participating in our event; players, coaches, and referees.”

The role of a referee is a bit of a thankless job. But without them competitive tennis could not be played. Consider that they only get noticed when something goes wrong or when a player feels slighted. Even during trophy presentations, everyone from the ball kids to the sponsors even the player’s girlfriend gets shout outs, but no, not the chair umpire.

Players can be funny about line calls and foot faults. By the way they react to a foot fault you would think that they had never committed one in their lives. Line calls can get tricky, especially on the far side when the match is tight. Often, in the heat of the moment, a player wants the opponent’s ball to be out so much that he actually believes with all his heart that it is out. Or vice versa with one of his own shots that is called out. Some players rant, rave, insult and go over the top in their belief that they are right and everyone else is wrong. 

I asked Nitin Kannamwar, Gold Badge referee and officiating regional officer for Asia, does the ATP have any statistics on player challenges with Hawkeye? He got back to me with this shocker.

“The stats are in the range of players being right only about 30 per cent of the times,” Kannamwar reports.”

Good luck explaining that to a tennis player, I thought.

I was curious about what it is like and what it takes to be an ATP chair umpire. So I spent some time talking with Andre Kornilov of Uzbekistan, who is here in Kaohsiung this week.

“This is my main job, and I am on tour about 25-28 weeks per year,” says Kornilov. “I am also holding the position of head of officiating in Uzbekistan. At every level of the officiating ladder, there is a tremendous amount of training and qualifications needed. And then there is continuing education.”

chair umpire“It is a very nice job where you get to travel all over the world, and being part of the ATP World Tour and Challenger Tour and at the Grand Slams is great. But we referees know that we are only as good as our last match. So for us, we are constantly seeking ways to get better. Just like the players. We have other referees review our matches and constructively critique where we can improve. One of the first things you learn as an umpire is to make sure everyone on court from the ball kids to the linesmen are in the right spot. A basic check list before each point. It sounds easy but often there are so many things going on at the same time. We have to be really diligent.

“In respect to line calls or over rules, we have to make the decision the way we see it. We do have special techniques in order to get our eyes in the right place in the right time, but as you will agree it’s not always possible. And when a player is angry or losing his temper over a call we have to be able to communicate with the player in the right way. Communications is the main aspect in our job. And also make sure the player does not cross the line with what is acceptable and that which is not acceptable.”

I remembered back to a comment made by ATP World Tour veteran supervisor Tom Barnes at the Sony Open Tennis in Miami. With his grizzled beard, folded arms and deep voice, Barnes quipped, “In all my years I have never won an argument with a tennis player. But I have had to make a lot of decisions that might not have been to their liking.” 

It takes a lot to make an ATP tournament a success. Good players, good sponsors and a good tournament director, who knows what players and sponsors want and need. It also takes good men in the chair to insure fair play and match integrity. Here in Kaohsiung they have definitely ticked off all those boxes.

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