Forged from green surroundings and parking lots: Hyeon Chung truly is a one-off

Michael Graham
Hyeon Chung celebrates
Hyeon Chung celebrates

To celebrate his birthday, Michael Graham tells us what’s so brilliant about the inexplicable Hyeon Chung.

Hyeon Chung really is a on-off. Just one look at him tells you that.

From his wholly unique bespectacled look to his quite yet fierce intensity, there isn’t much at all about him that’s off the rack.

In a year that has already produced Roger Federer becoming the oldest ever world number one, Rafael Nadal breaking records, and Alexander Zverev’s emergence as a probably true rival to both of them, Chung’s Australian Open journey still ranks as one of the biggest tennis stories of 2018.

And it’s that inexplicability of the South Korean that makes him so endearing.

An obvious athlete, Chung made the culturally controversial decision to ditch his homeland’s national sport of taekwondo to follow the very western pursuit of tennis, and all because of a medical accident.

Well, perhaps not all because, but it makes a better narrative, doesn’t it? Truth is, Chung’s father is a tennis coach and his older brother, Hang, also played.

However, it was medical grounds that saw Hyeon follow in their footsteps.

Suffering with astigmatism, an eye condition that effects a person’s ability to focus on light, his call to tennis came about courtesy of an unintentional push by their family physician.

“The doctor said instead of looking at the tiny letters of the book, it’s better to look at the green colour,” his mother Young-mi explained.

“In Korea, all the fences around the tennis courts were green. His older brother was already playing tennis, so he started playing tennis as a hobby.”

From there, he started playing in his spare time in parking lots to really hone his skills, and the Asia Games in September 2014 when Hyeon really helped himself.

Men in South Korea are required to serve time in the military, but those who achieve sporting success on behalf of the nation are spared.

In Incheon, South Korea, playing doubles with Yong-kyu Lim, he did just that.

“We saved like four match points in the semi-finals,” Chung recalled during his remarkable Australian Open run.

“If I lose that match, maybe I am not here now. I would have to go to the army.”

It really does all combine to make a bespectacled on-court warrior who is one of a kind – one who can even brush aside the challenges of facing the best players in the world while wearing glasses.

“I always play with the glasses,” he said, admitting he “feels bare” without them. “Without the glasses, I can see guys, but I can’t play the same tennis.

“I have to wear the glasses all the time. By now they’re part of my body so it’s not difficult to play wearing them.”

Once his talent was spotted, Hyeon Chung went to famed coach Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Tennis Academy in Florida for two years.

“To tell the truth, nobody thought he would get where he is today,” admitted Bollettieri.

“He was sort of small, but he was a good hustler. He was a little overshadowed by Kei [Nishikori].”

Now, though, under the coaching of IMG stalwart Neville Goodwin, there appears to be no stopping him.

“You could really see this was a guy who could move, and strike the ball,” said Goodwin after first seeing him practising with Kevin Anderson.

“He needed maturing and developing, and although he was ranked so highly, he’d been playing mainly challengers rather than on the main tour.

“I think he found that first year on tour a real adjustment. I was very excited to be asked [if I would be interested] in coaching him.”

With Roger Federer tipping him to be a fixture in the world’s top ten for years to come, Hyeon Chung has become one of the most interesting and enjoyable players to watch on tour, and one senses that 2018 is just the start of a remarkable journey.