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Kwon Soon-woo is the new face of Korean tennis

Injury-prone Chung is usurped as 21-year-old enters the top 100
Nov 23,2019
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Kwon Soon-woo poses for a photo at Kiturami Clean Tennis Court in Gocheok-dong, western Seoul, on Thursday. [KANG JUNG-HYUN]
Kwon Soon-woo arose as Korea’s new tennis hopeful this season.

When the 2019 season started, Kwon’s world ranking wasn’t exactly great, at No. 235 in January. But by August, he’d made a big jump, becoming only the third Korean tennis player to ever get inside the top 100.

Before Kwon, Lee Hyung-taik was the first-ever Korean to be ranked inside the top 100 in November 2000, when he was only 24 years old. Chung Hyeon made it in April 2015, when he was only 19.

Lee’s highest ranking was No. 36, while Chung’s was No. 19.

Looking at the two’s career achievements, Kwon still has a long way to go, as his highest world ranking was at No. 81 in September this year. As of Friday, 21-year-old Kwon is ranked at No. 88.

“I never imagined that I’ll be playing in Tour events and ranked inside the top 100,” Kwon said. “I wasn’t good enough compared to other players, in terms of skills and physical conditions.”

Kwon first picked up a tennis racket when he was in the fourth grade, while attending elementary school in Gimcheon, North Gyeongsang. It was considered a late start as most tennis players start the sport around age seven.

Not only that, when he first started, he was considered short, standing at only 1.50 meters (5 feet).

“In elementary school, he always stood toward the front to the middle of the line,” said Kwon’s mother. “When we look at his childhood photos, his height was always his complex as he would stand on his tippy-toes in almost all of the pictures.”

But his height wasn’t an issue for long. Once he got to high school, Kwon started to grow taller and is now 1.80 meters tall.

During Kwon’s junior career, he was often stuck in the shadow of Chung, Hong Seong-chan and Lee Duck-hee. Back in 2013, Chung finished runner-up in the boy’s singles at Wimbledon Junior, and in 2015 Hong finished runner-up in the boy’s singles at the Australia Open.

Although Lee didn’t see an impressive result at major tournaments, he was still a dominant junior player by ranking at No. 10 in the junior world ranking in 2014.

But 2019 finally turned out to be Kwon’s year.

Out of the four, Kwon is the only one currently ranked in the top 100.

Chung, the highest ranked Korean tennis player ever, saw his ranking drop dramatically as he missed the majority of the first half of the season due to an injury. Chung returned to the court in July this year and has picked up six wins and eight losses, good enough to be ranked at No. 129. Lee then follows at No. 251 and Hong is ranked at No. 508.

“I want to give myself a score of 10 out of 10 this year,” Kwon said. “My goal was to get inside the top 100, and I’ve achieved it.”

Kwon made his pro debut in 2015 and in 2017, he finished runner-up at two Challenger Tour events. This allowed him to make a huge jump in his world ranking, from ranking between 300 and 400 to No. 168. By strengthening his basics and adding strength through weight training, Kwon started wining more matches, and it allowed him to gain confidence.

His hard work paid off as he added another runner-up finish in 2018 and won two Challenger Tour events in 2019.

In addition to his two wins on the Challenger Tour, Kwon qualified for seven ATP Tour events, including two major tournaments - the U.S. Open and Wimbledon.

“He could have earned more ranking points by playing in more Challenger Tour events,” said Kim Pyung-ki, vice president of Kwon’s management agency Sportizen. “But he chose to compete in tour events. It wasn’t easy to make his way up by starting from the qualifier, but through that process he was able to get his ranking inside the top 100.”

Back when he was shorter, Kwon used his speed as his strength and worked a lot on his net play, staying one step ahead of his opponents. Still, that is considered his strength.

This season, Kwon was able to make more improvements under coach Im Kyu-tae in April. Im said he focused on keeping Kwon’s strength.

“Just like an actual match, we worked on different strategies based on specific situations and this helped him improve on his performance,” Im said. “Still, the location of his serve and position is simple. We’ll be training so he can be more confident with it and have more varieties.”

Starting Monday, Kwon will get back to work for the 2020 season. Although he won’t be playing in a tournament, Kwon will start training as he’ll spend two weeks in Japan and China.

“The Australian Open, the first major tournament of the season, will be held in January next year,” Kwon said. “I’ll be training hard to pick up my first win at a major tournament. My real goal is to be ranked inside the top 100 for 10 straight years. Rather than one good season, I want to be a good player, consistently.”

BY PARK SO-YOUNG [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]