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Monday, 13 November 2017
15:50 PM GMT

Chung makes his mark

By Alex Sharp

The ATP Next Gen Finals ended with Hyeon Chung staking his claim as one of the most exciting future talents in the men's game.

Having gone undefeated throughout the week, Chung clinched his maiden tour-level title and lifted the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals trophy, navigating past top seed Andrey Rublev 3-4(5), 4-3(2), 4-2, 4-2 in the final. 

“I'm just really, really happy because I didn’t think I would become champion here in Milan," said the South Korean.

“After I lost the first set, and then down a break in the second, in that moment I was really nervous and really angry, but I had to show a poker face,” explained Chung, who is working with a sports psychologist back home to replicate the mental fortitude of his idol Novak Djokovic.

“I knew he would also be nervous in a final, so I used my poker face to try to look mentally strong.”

The world No.59 became the first South Korean to win an ATP singles title since Hyung-Taik Lee became 2003 Sydney champion.

“I train with him sometimes,” added Chung, nicknamed ‘The Professor’ by his friends for his futuristic court glasses. “When I play in Davis Cup, he is our captain, so I'm just training with him. It’s a great honour to work with him.”

It was his first ATP final; a previous best showing was the Munich semi-finals earlier this season. Alongside teenagers Soon Woo Kwon and Duckhee Lee inside the top 200, South Korea can look forward to a promising future with Chung on the charge.

Recapping the week

Rublev took 90 minutes to dispatch local hero and former junior world No.1 Quinzi 1-4, 4-0, 4-3(3), 0-4, 4-3(3) in his opening encounter.

“The rules make it that everybody can beat everybody," said the Russian of the new format. "You have to be focused, 100% on every ball, every minute. It’s so much pressure!”

Chung was particularly effective all week in the clutch moments, on break or deciding points, and ignited his title charge with a 1-4, 4-3(5), 4-3(4), 4-1 triumph against Shapovalov.

He would go on to dominate Group A, dismantling Rublev in straight sets and taking down Quinzi in a five-set thriller for a semi-final ticket. 

Croatian Borna Coric replicated Chung's efforts to qualify for the final four unbeaten. “I took risks, I’ve been brave in tight situations here” stated the fourth seed, who flourished with early-strike tennis to topple Jared Donaldson and Daniil Medvedev, before a titanic 3-4(3), 2-4, 4-2, 4-0, 4-2 victory over Khachanov.

Due to Chung’s scintillating form, Rublev and Shapovalov were forced into a shootout for the second semi-final spot in Group A, in what proved to be superb advert for the Next Gen legion.

Shapovalov demonstrated his scintillating shot-making to twice draw the match level from a set down. At one stage, inspired play culminated in the 18-year-old rattling a backhand down the line whilst simultaneously falling to the floor.

Possibly the shot of the tournament was also on display, as Rublev lunged low to pick off a backhand volley at his toes to wrong foot the Canadian. Shapovalov approved and signalled thumbs up to his opponent. That moment of sheer brilliance was the catalyst as Rublev prevailed.

US Open quarter-finalist Rublev maintained his momentum to navigate past Coric 4-1, 4-3(6), 4-1 and reach the final. “That was the best tennis of the week for me by far,” said the top seed. “I guess I’ve found my rhythm. I hope the final will be a great match, I’ll try to dictate play whoever I face.”

Medvedev squeezed into the semi-finals but his quest was halted in a turbulent blockbuster with Chung.

Chung had stormed into a 4-1, 4-1, 2-0 lead, but Medvedev felt obliged to repay the support from the stands and managed to earn a decider.

“I’m really happy the way I fought because the public was going crazy when I was playing bad and so far down,” said the seventh seed. “I thought I had to show them something.”

However, Chung curled in a sumptuous lob to spark a break for 2-0, accelerating towards the silverware showdown, with Medvedev eventually collecting the bronze medal.

The finale

3,600 spectators arrived to see whether Rublev could avenge two previous defeats against Chung, and they were not left short changed.

The Russian made a blistering start, stepping up onto the baseline and unleashing relentless strikes into the corners. The Chung resistance crumbled in the tie-break, prompting Rublev to let out a huge roar. 

The top seed was in command when serving for the second set, particularly as Chung had only rallied from a one-set deficit twice in 2017 prior to the event.

However, Milan has demonstrated the true tenacity of Chung. His defence mid-stride and ability to flip a point from defence into attack was exemplary in the confines of the Next Gen court. So much so that the South Korean saved 77% of break points he faced all week. The format heightened the intensity and Chung wouldn’t crack.

A brace of bullet forehand winners snatched the third set, before closing out the tournament in style, pointing to his proud parents and coaching team in disbelief.

“It’s a great honour to win here,” said the world No.59, who is eager to use the title as a springboard for success in 2018.

“It’s the perfect way to finish a long season, but I think I will start next year even better now. I must keeping working.”

Rublev was left to reflect on what might have been. “I was playing much better than him. I was dictating the match, and then I let my emotions take over to lose my head,” observed the Umag champion.

“Maybe it’s my personality. I have to change, there is long way to go. If I want to compete with good players, it's not enough.”

Rublev is desperate to channel his fierce competitive spirit, but also paid tribute to the champion.

“He has amazing stamina and I think his main asset is that mentally he's really strong. No matter what, he never gives up. He always fights. He never complains, he never shows emotion.”

Perhaps it’s that poker face! With power, potential and persistence, Chung is poised to rocket up the rankings.

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