[Letters] Suggestions for the success of Korean tennisKorea is no amateur when it comes to producing world-class athletes. However, there is not a single tennis player within the top hundred in the world. Currently, the Korean Tennis Association trains 16 national athletes, but none have managed to crack into the top 100 world rankings.
Korea’s last superstar in tennis was Lee Hyung-taik, who had climbed as high as 36th in the world rankings in 2007. Since then, Korea has seen a dearth of talent. “To be a successful tennis player, [he or she] needs two things: first, an immense amount of training, physical and mental. Second, a player needs financial support,” said Kim Hye-jung, head coach at the Lee Hyung Taik Tennis Academy. “One way of initiating [these] is by having a role model. Korean tennis desperately needs a superstar like Kim Yuna in figure skating.”
Particularly in the past five years, China has seen a popularity surge in tennis, rapidly producing world-class tennis players, nine of whom have broken into the top 100 in the world rankings. In this pool of world-class athletes is Li Na, the 2011 French Open Champion and Australian Open finalist.
It should be noted that although Li’s success at the French Open has certainly served as a major inspiration to many upcoming tennis players in China, it has not been the only reason for the rise in demand for tennis. In fact, the successes of Chinese tennis players, especially female players, can be attributed more to changes in their tennis system. “China’s tennis system has changed for a while,” says Kim Hye-jung. “The Chinese government and its tennis association have forged a long-term plan in tennis players. The government is relieving some of the restrictions to travel abroad for players. Also, China has hired many foreign coaches, especially from Australia.”
Unlike China, however, Korea has been much less flexible with its tennis programs. Kim said that tennis competition in Korea has been confined to school teams. “[Players] train at schools and have many interschool team competitions. But other countries treat tennis differently. There are tennis academies, which focus on each individual player,” Kim said.
Kim Il-son, who has served as both Korea’s Women’s National Fed Cup coach and an SBS tennis commentator said, “Players at schools like Mapo High School are not getting the attention they need. Korea has only two training facilities that provide this type of individualized training, one of which is the Lee Hyung Taik Academy.”
These deficiencies in their games have served as burdens to many Korean junior players who aspire to play in the professional tour and, maybe, in a grand-slam stadium. Consequently, coaches like Kim are trying to change the way tennis is treated in Korea. Nevertheless, there are still many more obstacles to surmount, one of which is that “many officials resist the change as they are in favor of the status quo.” Still, former star players are making efforts to foster Korea’s next generation of junior players. For example, Lee Hyung-taik decided to contribute to the youth tennis programs in Korea. After retirement, he established Lee Hyung Taik Tennis Academy in his hometown in Gangwon.
Tennis is a game that constantly evolves, and there are always new standards to be met. Kim Il-son stated that if Korea remains firm and unwilling to alter its tennis system, it will not only have a bad effect on players but also bode ill for the future of Korea’s tennis, a potential source of national pride and inspiration. Kim concluded that if more “support and attention were given to players,” it could hail the rise of a new international superstar.
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Hwang Jin-sang, a former intern at the Korea JoongAng Daily