By Melanie Burton
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – It was only last weekend that Chung Hyeon admitted he goes largely unrecognized on the streets of Seoul because tennis is not a high-profile sport in South Korea.
That is changing fast, however, as the 21-year-old prepares to become the first South Korean to play in a grand slam quarter-final at the Australian Open on Wednesday.
Chung faces American Tennys Sandgren following his stunning upset of Novak Djokovic, a win that catapulted him into a global stratosphere where Asia’s highest-profile names usually come from Japan and China.
“It’s massive, it’s really a big thing, it’s front page news on every single Korean paper today,” Chung’s coach Neville Godwin said.
“I think they (Asia) have been crying out for new stars. Kei (Nishikori) has been a flagbearer for a long time. Maybe the Koreans and the Japanese don’t always see eye to eye… so I’m sure Korea will be pretty happy that they now have someone to stand up against (him).”
The bespectacled Chung, who as a child chose tennis over taekwondo after doctors told his parents that a focus on green would improve his eyesight, reached a career-high world number 44 in 2017 but has since slipped to 58th.
His performance in Melbourne has eclipsed the previous best grand slam showing of compatriot Lee Hyung-taik more than a decade ago and Chung is being touted as the next Djokovic because of his relentless defensive skills.
“We do play very similar,” Djokovic said after losing to Chung in the last 16.
“He definitely has the game to be a top-10 player. Obviously, I respect him a lot because he’s a hard worker, he’s disciplined, he’s a nice guy, he’s quiet. You can see that he cares about his career and his performances. So I’m sure that he’s going to get some really good results in the future.”
The Korea Tennis Association is planning to pour more resources into the country’s junior league as it banks on Chung’s performance to fuel the sport’s popularity and inspire the next generation of players.
“Not only the tennis fans in Korea, but the whole nation was amazed at his performance and it brought him to the attention of many people,” Korea Tennis Association official Hong Da Jung told Reuters.
On paper at least, Chung has a good chance of extending his winning streak having beaten Sandgren two weeks ago in Auckland and he is already experiencing evidence of his higher profile with more requests from fans for his autograph.
“In the streets, no. But in the court, maybe someone wants me to take a picture sometimes,” he said.
Chung also understands the significance of beating his idol Djokovic, the Serbian former world number one and 12-times grand slam champion.
“Today (is a) victory for my country, I think tennis is coming up after tonight,” he said.
(Reporting by Melanie Burton, editing by Ed Osmond)