By Giri Nathan
Tennis hasn’t been the same without those white wraparound high-performance sports glasses. As a lifelong myope, I feel represented by their return this week. And I am even happier to see the guy donning them. There was a brief window when Hyeon Chung—who is back on court this week for the first time in two years, and has been removed from his best tennis for much longer than that—was one of the most compelling young players on the ATP. He was an extreme counterpuncher, but the kind with sauce. His religion appeared to be Leg Day. He liked to slide into splits and work with corners. He’d finish a huge upset and literally shrug his shoulders. We needed more of this guy! But it wasn’t to be.
The South Korean first registered on my radar in 2017 in Barcelona, when he was a 21-year-old giving Rafa a little bit of a headache during an otherwise comically dominant clay season for the Spaniard. At the end of that year Chung won the Next Gen Finals, beating Denis Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev, and Daniil Medvedev, who have all turned out to be pretty decent in the years since. He kept heating up. At the start of 2018, then ranked No. 58 in the world, Chung launched himself into an Australian Open semifinal, taking out Medvedev, Sascha Zverev, and Novak Djokovic along the way. Though in that semifinal he was forced to retire while down big to eventual champ Roger Federer, due to a hellscape Chung’s agent described as “blister under blister under blister,” open wounds that required anesthesia injections 45 minutes before his matches. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on him, but I think he’s going to be a great, great player,” said Roger afterward.
Those blisters were not to be the worst of Chung’s bodily woes. He healed his feet up and within weeks was back winning matches in the American hard-court swing, reaching the No. 19 ranking. But it’s been all downhill since then. Starting in 2019, back injuries began to undo his progress. He fell out of the top 100 and began fighting again in the Challengers between long injury and rehab layoffs. In the whole of 2020 he played just six matches, losing five of them, the last of which was in the qualifying rounds for Roland-Garros. Since September 2020, he hasn’t played a match at all. I used to check in on his Instagram every so often for updates, but there wasn’t a lot of evidence to work with. Seven weeks ago he posted a picture of blisters on his palm and bloodstains on the grip of his racquet, which I managed to interpret as good news, since it meant he was back to tennis in some form.
This week, over two years since his last competitive match, Chung, now a 26-year-old and completely unranked, is playing at the Seoul Open—only in the doubles draw, with his buddy and countryman Soonwoo Kwon. Chung said he was feeling “happiness and a little bit nervousness” returning to competitive tennis after what he described as two straight years of rehab and training. “The biggest thing I learned was how to understand my body and how to recover,” Chung said in a presser before the tournament. “In the past, I used to take the training and treatment after matches passively.” His present career goal is rather chill—don’t get hurt—and he hopes to return to singles with a pair of Challengers at home in South Korea in the coming weeks.
Chung and Kwon won their first-round match, starting creaky and looking formidable as the match went on, and won again on Friday to make the doubles semifinal at the first ATP event held in Seoul since 1996. “I’ve heard a lot of talk about how tennis is becoming more popular here, but I never expected anything quite like this,” Chung said after their second win, talking about the crowds in his home city. “I was so happy to see the full stands. But at the same time, I was worried that I would let our fans down because I am not 100 percent back.” The sport’s newfound popularity there surely has something to do with his own early career feats. He was the first South Korean to reach the quarterfinals of a major (let alone semifinals), and the first to reach the top-20 in the ATP rankings. Now Chung can literally hear the support as he begins his careful climb back to 100 percent.
Above: We’ve been missing the rec-specs of Hyeon Chung. (Getty)