Hyeon Chung ready to ditch obscurity for tennis fame

Hyeon Chung won the inaugural ATP Next Gen Finals earlier this year, establishing him as one of the top up-and-comers in the game. AP Photo/Antonio Calanni

Like most players, Hyeon Chung wonders what it might be like to be 18-time Grand Slam champion Roger Federer. Who wouldn't want to be the beloved king of tennis who is as wildly popular today as ever.

But do you think Federer ever wonders what it's like to be Chung -- an extremely successful, yet unrecognized player with his entire career in front of him?

Chung, a 21-year-old from Suwon, South Korea, recently won the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan (a year-end event modeled on the ATP World Tour Finals, but restricted to players 21 and under). But his nationality, halting English, and utter lack of a social media presence -- or any other body of biographical data -- have kept him from connecting fully with Western tennis fans.

Chung doesn't have a Twitter account; he doesn't post on Facebook. By today's standards, Chung seems invisible. But despite being the only Korean in the top 100, he claims he isn't lonely.

"Now in my tour life, I can see many Western and Asian players," Chung told ESPN.com, from his current training base in Thailand. "I can have relations with my fellow players and coaches so I am not alone. But I would like to see more Asian players on the tour in the future."

The one memorable detail about Chung -- the story of how his parents steered him to tennis in order to improve his poor eyesight -- is getting worn out. But he feels no obligation to add to his bio. He's focused on a blossoming career that has carried his ranking as high as No. 44. He's NO. 58 now, but No. 7 among players not yet 22 years old.

"To tell the truth, nobody thought he would get where he is today," famed coach Nick Bollettieri told ESPN.com. Chung trained for two years at Bollettieri's IMG Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Florida, after he won the 12-and-under division of the Eddie Herr and Orange Bowl tournaments in 2009. "He was sort of small, but he was a good hustler. He was a little overshadowed by Kei [Nishikori]."

Although Chung was more outgoing than the introverted Japanese star, Nishikori, he was all business on the court. Bollettieri said that Chung's attitude toward the game, combined with the image created by his omnipresent glasses, led the staff at the academy to dub him, "The Scientist."

"I have high-level astigmatism," Chung said of his eyesight. "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."

The glasses are probably less of a handicap than his second serve and his sometimes erratic forehand that Chung has been working hard to improve. His game is based on the wheels and counter-punching ability that enabled him to break through on the pro tour in 2015, when he won four Challenger titles and a handful of main-tour matches, including a run to the semifinals in Shenzhen. He finished the year No. 51, and, still just 19, he won the ATP's Most Improved Player award.

Chung is a muscular 6-foot-2 and weighs in at 192 pounds. He's been adding oomph to the serve, but his progress, while notable, was impaired this year by assorted foot and abdominal injuries. He missed seven events in 2017, including Wimbledon, Indian Wells, London/Queens Club and Shenzhen, an enormous number for a rising talent capable of playing a full schedule. He looks upon his recent history of frustration as a test.

While out for those extended periods, Chung was at least able to work on his serve and even some on his forehand. He tried to beef up his fitness. "It wasn't easy," he said, "But I got confidence from overcoming these problems and that will help me next season."

Unlike Nishikori, who owns a home in Bradenton and frequently trains at Bollettieri's, Chung put in his two years in Florida and quietly returned to Suwon. He's now coached by fellow countryman, former pro journeyman Hyun-Joon Suk.

Suwon hometown is the capital and largest metropolis of South Korea's most populous province, Gyeonggi-do. The Hwaseong Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for fortified walls that date back to the 1700s. But Chung's favorite spot is Gwanggyo Lake Park. That is where Chung has his fill at Bonsuwon Galbi Korean barbecue restaurant.

Suwon is close to North Korea, where international tensions have been running high because of the nuclear missile program and its aggressive stance against South Korea and other nations. "I don't really feel stressed about it," Chung said. "However, I hope we get to a situation where things are more stable, and no more talk of war."

When he has time in Korea, Chung also visits and seeks the advice of the most successful tennis pro in Korean history, Hyung-Taik Lee. Still the only Korean to win a main-tour ATP title, Lee is now 41. He reached the fourth round of the US Open twice and his ranking topped out at No. 36.

Chung's youth and early success suggest he'll surpass Lee's rankings mark and add the name of a second Korean to the ATP honor roll. As quiet and self-contained as Chung appears, he likes the idea of enjoying a greater measure of fame and fortune.

"I was gladly surprised when I came home after I won the ATP Next Gen Final," he said. "Many fans and media members came to the airport to meet me. I thought this sort of attention could be one of the reasons so many ATP players want to win."

Perhaps it's time to start a Twitter feed, maybe even make some friends on Facebook. Obscurity has its shortcomings.