You have no idea how much I wanted to tell you that I watched every single point of the match between Chung Hyeon and Fernando Verdasco. I wanted to write the ultimate recap of that one match. I had seen pretty much every point Chung had played so far at the US Men’s Clay Court Championship so far, and Verdasco is the defending champion. The match was slated into the 6 pm night session, which translated a as a “welcome to the big leagues” moment for Hyeon. All of the ingredients were there for a special night, so of course I was going to write about it.
But what is it that they say about the best laid plans?
Instead, it’s 2:09 am on Saturday, and I’m trying to finish this post while listening to Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. Fernando Verdasco already beat someone else (Teimuraz Gabashvili) in impressive fashion, and has become my pick to hoist the trophy on Sunday. Who knows where Chung Hyeon is.
At any rate, let’s go back in time to Thursday. It turns out that my only chance to talk to *someone* was around 6 pm on that day, which, as we established already, was the start time for Chung-Verdasco. Initially I thought I would be done with the conversation by 6:15 or so, but it turns out that the conversation with that *someone* was very, very interesting, and ended up taking way longer than I thought. To end the mystery here, I’ll just say that you should be able to read that conversation around the time Madrid comes along. So stay tuned.
At any rate, once I was done with *someone*, I frantically made my way to the Stadium at the River Oaks Country Club. As I was waiting to be let inside, Chung and Verdasco were battling in a 4-4 Verdasco service game in which the South Korean teen had at least one break point. I finally was allowed inside after Verdasco held.
The crowd seemed to be buzzing. 6 pm is when most of the regular patrons of this event make their way into the club. Of course, since everyone seems to know each other in the boxes, there’s a lot of socializing involved. There were plenty of men wearing bright colored pants, and women in all kinds of fancy dresses. I looked for a spot where I could take photos of Chung’s backhand, and found a half empty box in the East side of the stadium. One of the great things about being a credentialed media member at this event is that for most rounds, you can pick and choose where to sit. Of course, if someone has a ticket for your spot, you have to move. But that’s only an issue in later rounds, and there are always options with a great view.
At any rate, I found myself in a box with a woman and teenager. Both were pulling for Chung. I tried to get my Chung backhand photos, and at the same time pay attention to the proceedings. Oh, and I wanted to focus on the speed readings of Chung’s first and second serves. In short, I was trying to do way too many things at once, and as it goes in those situations, you end up feeling like you didn’t do any of your many tasks particularly well. The light was not good enough for me to take good (phone) action photos of Chung without using the flash, so I ended up with a bunch of blurry images. Then there was the issue of the angle to watch the match. It just wasn’t good for the type of thing I wanted to pay attention to: depth on both sides and the changing of direction of the ball.
But what I did see in those last few moments of the first set was a young player going toe-to-toe with the defending champion. Chung did not seem overmatched, and did not seemed affected by the Stadium atmosphere at all. The body language was positive, and the shots were working. Verdasco was having to come up with very good shots of his own in order to take points. Nothing was being given to him by the youngster.
The one task I did manage to perform to a decent level (which Verdasco later confirmed during his mixed zone presser) was to pay attention to the serving speed of Chung Hyeon. The kid would routinely go above 120 mph for his first serve (I saw one at 129, and plenty at 124-125 mph), and go no lower than 90 mph for the second serve. That was impressive to see.
The first set tiebreaker was extremely tight. The kid donated the first minibreak with an UFE, but recovered it shortly after, displaying his phenomenal ability to cover the court and win points where he’s being pushed around and seemingly out of the point. I remember Hyeon letting out a loud “Come on!” and a strong fistpump after winning that 3-1 point. The kid was in it to win it, as the cliché goes.
However, there’s a reason why Verdasco has finished in the top 10 more than once. In the very next point, Chung kept trying to force Verdasco into his backhand corner, and left a cross-court forehand just a little short. Verdasco stepped in and blasted an inside-out forehand winner. It was a phenomenal shot, and ended up being the difference in the tiebreaker, since the server won every point thereafter.
After such a tight battle, It seemed like we were in store for a fascinating second set. I made my way to the south end of the stadium, which lies behind the near baseline of your TV screen. I found a great spot, and the first thing I saw was that Chung seemed a bit weary. I saw the same thing in the second set of the kid’s first round match against Facundo Argüello: Hyeon was walking a bit slower between points, and he was breathing through his mouth more often than before. Still, Chung stayed with Verdasco until 2-2 in the second, where it seemed like he went down 0-40 in the blink of an eye. I do remember the 0-15 point, though. Chung hit a very good angled backhand that should have won him the point. However, Verdasco got to it and managed to hit one of Nadal’s patented “banana” shots that barely caught the outer part of the sideline. It was a phenomenal shot.
From this point on, the stronger, more experienced man asserted himself over the kid who was playing his fifth match in six days. Chung seemed to have expended a significant amount of energy in that super tight first set, and he was running on empty when he found himself down a set and a break to a guy who was playing so well. The kid went down 0-40 again, down 2-4, and made probably the one shot selection mistake of the past week: he played a dropper way too early in the point, and Verdasco duly punished him for it. Still, the kid had a chance to get to 0-30 on Verdasco’s serve at 5-2, but sprayed a putaway forehand just wide.
The match ended, and Verdasco came into the media room. The Spaniard seemed subdued, though happy to go through. He was very complimentary of Chung Hyeon’s game, both in English and in Spanish. He said Chung has a “good forehand, good backhand, and also a good serve.” Fernando said Chung was “very complete, and with a little bit more experience, he’s gonna go high in the rankings fast.”
Thus ended Chung Hyeon’s adventures in Houston. It was a thoroughly successful week: this was the first time Hyeon attempted to get into a regular ATP main draw (he had tried and failed to get into two Slams before), and he succeeded, dropping just one set, in what was just his second professional tournament on clay. His dreams of making a Slam draw are getting closer and closer to coming true. He might not make the cut for the French Open, but don’t be surprised if he makes it through the qualies anyway. The kid is playing well, and he’s on the right track.
An image from Chung Hyeon I’ll remember for a while is him catching glimpses of matches well before he was supposed to play. Given his quasi anonymous status, he can comfortably take in the proceedings without being asked for photos or autographs. Hyeon just looked to me like a curious kid who enjoys watching people hit the ball. I hope gets the most of these quiet, peaceful moments, since they’re likely not going to last that much longer.