This could be the year that Korea return to the Davis Cup finals
Korea will face Austria in the Qualifying Round of the 2022 Davis Cup on Friday and Saturday as Kwon Soon-woo looks to lead the underdog team to their first finals in 14 years.
Korea is one of 24 teams to have reached the Qualifying Round at the tennis equivalent to the World Cup, with the 12 winning teams advancing to the finals. A total of 16 teams typically compete in the finals, with the 12 qualifying teams joining the two finalists of the 2021 tournament and two wildcard picks.
The four qualified teams this year were Croatia, Great Britain, Serbia and Russia, but Russia has been banned from competing following the invasion of Ukraine.
Korea has reached the finals of the top-tier world group at the Davis Cup three times, in 1981, 1987 and 2008. On all three occasions, Korea was knocked out of the tournament in the first round, most recently losing three matches to two against Germany at the 2008 tournament.
This year's draw against Austria could offer a rare opportunity for Korea to make it to the final tournament for a fourth time.
On paper, Korea enters the Qualifying Round as a serious underdog, the fifth-lowest ranked team left in the competition at No. 27, well below Austria's No. 16.
But tennis is not a team sport, and each round is decided by a series of games — four singles games and one doubles game. As a result, one or two particularly strong players could be all a country needs to come out on top, even if their overall ranking suggests otherwise.
Korea has its one strong player — world No. 65 Kwon Soon-woo. Kwon is very much the backbone of the team, with world No. 367 Chung Yun-seong, world No. 571 Hong Seong-chan, world No. 247 Nam Ji-sung and world No. 358 Song Min-kyu completing the roster.
But despite those rankings, Korea may have a chance against Austria due to the recent injury of world No. 51 Dominic Thiem. Without former world No. 3 Thiem, Austria are left with a seriously weakened roster consisting of world No. 143 Dennis Novak, world No. 194 Jurij Rodionov, world No. 105 Alexander Erler and world No. 117 Lucas Miedler.
While all four of the Austrian players outrank everybody except Kwon, the format of the tournament is likely to benefit the Korean squad.
Typically at the Davis Cup, each team names two singles players and a doubles pair. The singles players play a match each, then the doubles pairs face off, then the singles teams return to the court and swap opponents.
For Korea that means that Kwon, as one of the singles players, will play two matches. If Kwon can win both of those, Korea only needs to win one of the remaining three games to qualify for the Davis Cup finals.
Nam is currently scheduled to take Korea's other singles spot, as well as appearing in the doubles match alongside Song Min-kyu.
Nam will open the qualifying series, to be held at the Olympic Park Tennis Center in Seoul, with the first match against Novak, after which Kwon will take on Rodionov. Nam and Song will then face Erler and Miedler in the doubles match, before Kwon returns to the court to take on Novak and then Nam closes the tournament against Rodionov.
Kwon has never played Rodionov before, but he has unfortunate history with Novak — the two faced off twice during the 2019 season and Novak won both matches. Kwon's game has progressed a lot since then, however, so a victory for the Austrian is in no way certain.
If Kwon can win both matches, Korea's best bet for that all-important third win is likely to be the Nam-Song doubles match.
"If we win the preliminary round, we can go to the finals," Kwon said at a press conference on Thursday. "It's a home game, so I feel the pressure, but I will overcome it, play well and win."
BY JIM BULLEY AND BAE YOUNG-EUN [firstname.lastname@example.org]