Can Hyeon Chung follow in golfer Park Se-ri’s footsteps and inspire a generation?

Peter Hampshire
Hyeon Chung celebrates
Hyeon Chung celebrates

Charismatic South Korean Hyeon Chung has caught the imagination since his appearance at the Australian Open this year, but could he have a very real and lasting, sporting impact in his homeland? Peter Hampshire tracks the birth of a possible icon.

Korea’s first ever grand slam semi-finalist Hyeon Chung has not had it easy. He honed his skills with his Tennis mad brother in a car park outside their home, and has had to contend with mandatory military service looming over him along with his now iconic eyesight issues.

Now, the 21-year-old from Suwon, 21 miles south from Seoul, could be set to have the same impact on Korean tennis as Park Se-ri did on Golf on the peninsula, winning the 1998 US Open to inspire a generation of Korean female golfers who have gone on to dominate their field.

“A lot of Koreans are starting to take up tennis because of him.” – Nicole Chung, sports journalist.

One of 32 seeds to receive byes to the second round at this year’s Miami Open, Chung finds himself placed above established names on the circuit such as Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. Winning a first ATP tour title at 18, Nishikori’s rise to fame holds some similarities to that of Chung in Korea, where national interest in a niche sport is growing.

There can be little question that Park Se-ri’s story inspired Korea’s golfing supremacy.

Upon joining the professional women’s golf scene, 20-year-old Park belonged to a Korean cohort of just three. Following 10 years of her leadership as the country’s matriarchal golfing heroine, Se-ri’s infamous 1998 win encouraged near-exponential growth to 45 Korean female golfers competing just ten years later.

It seems as though Chung’s rapid rise to Miami Open contention has caught the imagination in his homeland in a similar fashion.

Korean sports journalist Nicole Chung told Tennis 365: “A lot of Koreans are starting to take up tennis because of him. When he was playing in the Australian Open everyone was talking about him and watching his games live on TV.”

“His brand Lacoste have seen a huge rise in sales and he’s attracting loads of new sponsors.”

The demand certainly has been high, so much so that Korean retailer Lotte were forced to import large numbers of the t-shirt Chung wore in his Australian Open three-set defeat of Novak Djokovic, despite Korea being amid one of its coldest winters on record.

Becoming an unlikely fashion icon was presumably not on the youngster’s agenda heading into 2018, twice stopped in his tracks by the might of Swiss Maestro Roger Federer including at the Indian Wells Open where Chung first saw off both Tomas Berdych and Pablo Cuervas.

Part of a tennis loving family, Chung was actually first pushed into the sport on the advice of his doctor, who suggested the sport could help aid correction of his poor eyesight.

While he may now be one of the hottest prospects in world tennis, it was 2014’s Asian Games that represented possibly the most high-tension match of his career.

A highly pressured opportunity to avoid Korea’s near two-year mandatory national service, Chung grabbed it with both hands to reduce his obligation to a mere four weeks of basic training.

Nobody will know what effect such a break from professional tennis would have had on his career but Chung is still thankful of his 2014 win. Speaking in Melbourne this year, he said: “We saved like four match points in the semi-finals. If I lose that match, maybe I am not here now.”

The first Korean tennis star to adorn various front pages of its national newspapers, Chung’s endearing nature could help him take up the mantle from Park Se-ri as the country’s front runner inspiration and tennis ambassador – plenty will be watching in his homeland as he takes on the world’s best once again at the Miami Open.

Peter Hampshire