Chung Hyeon beat fellow qualifier Facundo Argüello 6-3, 7-5 in the hot mid-day sun yesterday at the Fayez Sarofim & Co. U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championship. The natural consequence of yet another main draw win for the South Korean teenager is that more and more people will want to see him play, and try to figure out just how good he can be. And as more folks get a look at the idiosyncratic way the 18 year-old approaches the sport, there will inevitably be a lot of discussions on his technique. Heck, some of us on Twitter have already started to try to figure out why his strokes seem so unusual.
Hence, this is a quick attempt at establishing a baseline of what Chung Hyeon’s tennis looks like right now, using still photos (taken with my phone – fancy, right?). But before we break it down stroke by stroke, a statement of intent:
This is not meant to be an indictment, or to cause ridicule. This is a celebration of individuality. I’m honestly fascinated by the way Chung Hyeon plays tennis. Watching him hit the ball has made me think a lot about what we in the tennis world say about technique (or how we say it). I think that sometimes we focus way too much on aesthetics and not on shot quality (pace, placement and the consistent ability to get depth). Nicolás Almagro is a great example: everyone raves about how pretty his one-handed backhand is, but that’s actually his weaker side. Almagro’s money has been made with his forehand, which is not as exciting for some folks (though it is for me – it’s a freaking cannon).
Before I digress any further, let’s go back to Hyeon. His shot quality is very, very good. Against Argüello he started to have issues getting depth in the second set, but I think that was induced mostly by the tough conditions the match was played under: there was hardly any shade from the hard Houston sun (the match kicked off at around 1:30 pm), and it was humid. Plus, Chung was playing his fourth match in as many days, and 31st of 2015. Once the kid got a second wind, the depth came back, and he overcame a break deficit in the second set to wrap up his passage to the second round without being forced into a decider.
So while Chung’s tennis is unusual, it’s far from ineffective. When we do see a problematic pattern in terms of shot quality (say, that his forehand starts breaking down when Top-20 guys target it all match), then we can really argue whether his technique should change/improve. But as it is, I see no reason to change anything. The shot quality is there, so why mess with the process that produces such consistently good shots?
With all of that in mind, let’s start with the shot-by-shot breakdown.
Return of Serve
Here is Hyeon as he prepared to return Argüello’s serve:
Nothing seems odd here. I need to focus more on whether Hyeon actually moves up for second serve returns or stays in the same place for both serve returns. My memory tells me that at most Chung moves up a half-step, but not much more. I’ll take a closer look on Thursday, when he plays defending champion Fernando Verdasco. At any rate, Hyeon doesn’t set up very close to the baseline when returning either serve.
Chung does not do the classic step forward plus split-step motion ahead of the return that we see Andy Murray and David Ferrer (among many, many others) execute ahead of every single return. He mostly stays in place, and sometimes even moves backward just enough to time the ball better. Whether he Chung leans forward or backward for returns depends on the serve that he is getting. He’s such an instinctive player, though I wonder how this approach will fare against better servers. Oh wait, we do have a small amount of data for that particular question: Chung broke Berdych’s serve twice in Miami. Also, in his four matches in Houston so far, Hyeon hasn’t won fewer than 40% of return points. That is a very, very good number.
Here’s another return photo, with Hyeon leaning forward for a return.
Now things start getting a little peculiar. This is Hyeon in his initial motion as he sets up to hit a backhand:
The way the kid uses his off hand (the left) to stick out the racquet’s head towards the net is so unique. This might be my favorite quirk of Chung’s game: he always, ALWAYS does this. The traditional way would be to simply drop the racquet head and take the racquet back. Hyeon eventually does that, but first comes this little poke towards the net. It’s fun.
Unfortunately there are no more good backhand photos, since there wasn’t a good enough spot for me on the other end of the court to take pictures from (more and more people are starting to notice Chung – he was definitely the fan favorite among the 50-odd folks sitting on or standing by the uncovered bleachers at Court 7). I’ll make sure to take more photos of the backhand side from the proper angle during his match against Verdasco.
But before we move on, here’s a photo of Hyeon running towards his backhand corner. Notice how the racquet head is pointing up:
And here’s another one where you see Chung establish his closed stance and drop the racquet head before the takeback:
When I started cropping my cellphone photos I found something in Chung’s forehand motion that I had never noticed before. But before we get to it, let’s go step by step, starting with the preparation:
Notice the angle with which Chung’s off hand holds the racquet, and how purposefully he sticks out the racquet head towards the net. Just like with his backhand.
Here is where we notice the short takeback, and how the racquet starts high (and almost doesn’t drop at all). But look on the intent on that off hand: instead of doing the classic thing and “pointing” towards the oncoming ball, Chung kind of hides behind his left arm, like he’s a magician with a cape. Also notice that the fingers on that left hand are all sticking together, which is not the way your fingers normally like to hang out when they’re not grabbing something.
The ball is now closer, and if anything, that left hand is going higher. Which is unusual. Notice that the racquet has not gone back a great deal, and the head has not dropped. Also, Hyeon seems to be in a 3/4 closed stance.
This one has just so much information. Let’s start from the bottom. One foot in the air! Obviously Chung is getting pushed back by an aggressive shot from Argüello: he’s not close to the baseline, and he’s hitting off the back foot. But look how far forward he’s hitting this forehand! And notice that the string bed is parallel to the net, not looking down on the court. One thing I’ve noticed with Chung is his ability to hit flat or with a bit of topspin depending on the situation. What’s astounding is how often the kid gets the shot selection right, starting with the spin he puts on the ball.
But look at that off hand! That’s what I hadn’t noticed before, and it cracked me up. Have you ever seen anything like that? It’s perfectly perpendicular towards the court! And so close to his chest!
And here is Chung a bit later after impact: the off hand is still in its unique position. This next photo is also fun, since Chung is chasing down a shot and hits it fully outstretched:
That is some serious off-hand magic.
There was more discovery here after cropping the photos. Again, lets go step by step:
Look at how Chung grips his racquet. Just two fingers as he bends forward to start the motion. Also notice that his feet aren’t stuck together in the classic pinpoint serving stance. Some players (male and female) start the motion with their feet a little bit apart, but join them together when going up for the serve. Chung does not do that.
Notice how his thighs start to come together, but his feet stay apart. Hyeon also tilts his head to the left, like Hantuchova does. The left arm is perfectly stiff (which follows the advice the nice man in the stands gave me during Day 1 of the Qualies). Also notice how he’s holding the ball with the tips of his fingers, with the thumb providing balance.
The toss goes up, and the racquet starts moving back. The feet have not moved. The thighs moving closer together, and the head is tilted to the left and back.
Now the thighs have come together, and the knees bend. The feet refuse to join the thighs, and stay apart. Both arms are fully outstretched, and my, that toss is going way up in the air.
This is probably my favorite on-site photo I’ve ever taken. I mean…what a pose, no? This is the moment where Chung’s service motion *feels* weird. You don’t really identify all the elements that caused that feeling, because Hyeon stays in this position for just a fraction of a second, right before going up for the impact. Notice how the off-hand is back to its forehand position. Also notice how the legs seem to be pushing in different directions, and that right knee appears to be in some distress. Would all of this be solved if Chung just joins his feet right before going up to hit the serve? Possibly. But maybe he already tried that and didn’t feel right, and his knee is doing fine as it is. Who knows. Isn’t this kid fun?
I feel like I need to gather more information on Chung’s serve. For one, it seems like there’s enough pace on his first delivery, but there are no speed guns outside of the Stadium at the River Oaks Country Club. In related news, none of Chung’s four matches here were at the Stadium. However, René Denfeld (who wrote a great intro to Chung’s game almost two months ago) provided this bit of info:
@jjvallejoa Maxed out around 200km/h back down under but they've since been tinkering with the service motion a little.
— René Denfeld (@Renestance) April 7, 2015
Just in case you’re wondering, 200 km/hour equals 124 mph. Which is perfectly fine. But I would like to see more speed info, and get a better sense of the placement, depth and spin Hyeon is getting on that second serve.
And we come full circle, since the kid’s landing after the serve is perfectly normal.
* * * * *
Chung-Verdasco will hopefully see the teenager play his first match in the Stadium at the River Oaks Country Club. And I’m sure people who are curious about his game will be able to find a stream somewhere to catch the match (Chung’s last two wins came on a court that wasn’t televised or streamed). But like I wrote at the beginning, there will be more and more talk about the kid’s unique way of hitting the ball. Be prepared to hear prominent ex coaches and talking heads diss his potential because of the odd technique. It might already be happening. Once again, I encourage you to look at the shot quality, not at the motion.
Two more things before wrapping this up: I talked to Hyeon the other day (through a translator – he understands a fair share of what is being said in English, but I don’t think he feels all that comfortable speaking the language), and asked him how he developed his unique strokes. He said it all comes naturally, and that there was no specific intention to develop them like they have.
Lastly, something that encapsulates the Chung Hyeon experience: as he was beating Zverev in the last round of qualifying, I started talking to a man who was watching from the uncovered bleachers. One of the first things he said to me was “this kid does not play like an 18 year-old.” It’s so very true: Hyeon doesn’t go out there just to hit the ball. He places his shots with purpose, and tries to be proactive with everything. He stays composed when things go badly (like yesterday, when he had three break points at 2-1, 0-40, failed to convert them, and got broken at love in the next game), or when he has to put away a shot. He must be the only teenager in the world who instead of going for the SUPER HARD BECAUSE I CAN DO IT putaway forehand simply waits until space opens up and softly caresses the ball away from his opponent.
When you talk to him, Hyeon seems like the most chill of 18 year olds. Just a quiet, relaxed kid who enjoys playing the game in his very unique way. May he continue to do so for a long, long time.
Previous posts from the 2015 US Men’s Clay Court Championship: