09:08 PM GMT February 21, 2018
Without Hyeon Chung's breakout in Milan last November, would the 21-year-old have made South Korean history and reached the Australian Open semi-finals?
Before the Next Gen ATP Finals in Milan, Chung had made only one semi-final in his career (2017 Munich). Winning back-to-back-to-back-to-back matches was not something he did with ease.
Then the Next Gen ATP Finals happened, and everything changed, says Neville Godwin, Chung's coach since December. In Milan, Chung blitzed through the draw, winning five consecutive matches for the first time in his career.
Sure, the rules were different, but the pressure points were more abundant than ever – deciding duece points, tie-breaks at three-all, and shorter sets that put an even higher premium on service breaks – and Godwin believes Chung's mindset changed after the 21-and-under tournament.
“I think if you look at his history up until that stage, he hadn't really gone deep... He hadn't won many back-to-back big matches. And I think playing in the environment that was in Milan, it was such a great event, and beating really good players... I think really kickstarted him to start believing, 'OK, I can do this,'” Godwin told ATPWorldTour.com in Delray Beach.
What happened next has been well-documented: Chung came back from two sets to one down to beat World No. 4 Alexander Zverev in the third round of the Australian Open. Chung then knocked out six-time champion Novak Djokovic and Tennys Sandgren of the U.S. to become the first South Korean – male or female – to make the semi-finals of a Grand Slam.
“I really didn't know I was going to make the semi-finals of a Grand Slam,” said Chung, who had reached the third round of a Slam only once before, 2017 Roland Garros (l. to Nishikori). “I can play more positive in the court and on and off the court, I'm just so happy.”
Chung and Godwin started working together in December, shortly after Godwin had split with South African Kevin Anderson. Chung and Anderson share an agent, so 10 days to a couple weeks after Anderson and Godwin split, Godwin was asked what he thought about working with Chung. They trained for a week together in Bangkok before heading to the ASB Classic in Auckland and the Australian Open.
Godwin, however, has already begun tweaking Chung's game, and the results have showed. Chung's power base is his Seqouia-esque legs, so Godwin has brought Chung's feet closer together before he serves. Think more like an Andy Roddick jumping-straight-up serve, Godwin said.
“He's obviously got incredibly strong legs so we're trying to incorporate that more into the serve,” Godwin said. “He's much more comfortable with it.”
It showed on the blue courts of Melbourne. During the past 52 weeks, Chung has won 71.8 per cent of his first-serve points, and 49.3 per cent of his second-serve points, according to the ATP Stats LEADERBOARDS, powered by Infosys NIA Data.
But in Australia, Chung ticked up both numbers, capturing 72.3 per cent of his first-serve points and almost 53 per cent of his second-serve points.
“I think that was key... his serve numbers definitely went up from where they were last year, which helped him hold serve more... and that frees you up to be more offensive on your return games and that showed as well, because he broke serve many times,” Godwin said.
Godwin has also tried to make Chung more conscious of his routine rally shots. For instance, the South Korean might hit a very clean ball but it lands on the service line, letting his opponent immediately jump on offence.
“That's a good ball. [But] you don't want to hit the ball in the middle, you want to hit the ball more away from the guy, so you get the guy moving,” Godwin said. “The more the other guy is moving, now it becomes a moving battle and you move better than anybody, just about, so that favours you.”
The newly-formed team knows it won't be a straight line at every tournament. There will be dips, early losses, disappointing finishes. But three tournaments in, it's hard to argue with the changes, the results and the effect Milan had on Chung.
“If he can reproduce what he was doing in Australia, I think he's very close,” Godwin said of Chung reaching the Top 10. “What remains to be seen, is how often can he reproduce that level of tennis... He's got a really level head and I think he's enjoying the process.”
Did You Know?
Chung's Infosys Serve Rating is 153.7, 10th best on the ATP Stats LEADERBOARDS, powered by Infosys NIA Data.