05:29 PM GMT November 12, 2017
Hyeon Chung wanted to scream. The South Korean had fallen behind a set and a break during the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals championship. Playing in his first ATP World Tour final, the 21-year-old felt anxious, and a comeback looked doubtful. Top seed Andrey Rublev was playing aggressive and dictating with his full-body forehand.
But Chung, as he did all week at the Fiera Milano, remained calm. He didn't hurl his racquet or smash a ball into the stands. Instead, he contrived a way to come back and disrupt Rublev. In other words, Chung showed his “poker face”.
“That moment I was really nervous. I was really angry, but I was to trying to poker face, because I know he's also nervous in finals. So if I lose the second set, I'm going to be more angry. But however, I have to stay poker face,” Chung said.
It worked. He slightly adjusted his tactics – hitting more down the line to put Rublev on the run – and, crucially, Chung stayed serene on the surface.
Rublev, meanwhile, grew angry, shouting at himself as he couldn't halt Chung from coming back and winning the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals title on Saturday night in Milan.
The Korean, nicknamed “The Professor” because he wears glasses, said he's also trying to add “mentally strong” to his ATP World Tour reputation. That, too, appears to be a successful project.
Rublev complimented Chung's physical strength and his shotmaking but reserved the most praise for Chung's attitude.
“His main [weapon] and his best, I think, is that mentally, he's really strong. No matter what, he never gives up. He's always fighting. If he feels he's losing, he's still always there. He never complains. He never shows emotion,” Rublev said.
Chung went a perfect 5-0 in Milan, beating Canadian Denis Shapovalov, third-place finisher Daniil Medvedev of Russia, Italian wild card Gianluigi Quinzi and Rublev earlier in group play. Two of those matches went five sets.
“When the matches are close, he always wins, because mentally, no matter what, he's always there,” Rublev said.
It was the third time Chung has beaten Rublev in their budding FedEx ATP Head2Head rivalry (3-0), and the Milan final was the second time the Korean has come back against the 20-year-old Russian. At the Winston-Salem Open in August, Chung dropped the first set but rallied to advance 5-7, 6-1, 6-1.
Chung, who turns 22 on 19 May, won't have a chance to defend his maiden title at the 21-and-under event. But bigger trophies seem headed his way in the near future.
During an injury-plagued 2017, Chung still managed to reach the semi-finals of the BMW Open by FWU in Munich and the quarter-finals of the Barcelona Open Banc Sabadell, an ATP World Tour 500 tournament.
For now, Chung will head back to his native Korea and enjoy his first title and the off-season with family and friends. He'll probably spend time with his sports psychologist, a former female tennis player, as well.
She and Chung had been working on keeping cool during big moments, and on Saturday night in Milan, the 21-year-old followed her instructions precisely.
“The coach says all the time,” Chung remembered, “'Always try to stay calm and try to, when you feel angry and nervous, you have to try to poker face and try to find [a way] to win.”