Great pride at Asian success

Great pride at Asian success
1989 French Open champion Michael Chang (left) and five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova at the Fullerton Bay Hotel.
PHOTO: The Straits Times

Even in his wildest dreams, Michael Chang, a devout Christian, could not have imagined that he would one day be playing tennis on water.

But the 1989 French Open champion could not hide his delight yesterday at the Fullerton Bay Hotel, as he took on five-time Grand Slam winner Maria Sharapova - on a court floating at Clifford Pier.

"I never expected to come back and play on a floating platform. Singapore's so different now," laughed the 43-year-old, who played in the now-defunct Heineken Open at the Singapore Indoor Stadium from 1996-1999.

For the perceptive Chang though, the razzmatazz, sponsor events, mixed with the cacophony of camera shutters clicking furiously and fans squealing for autographs are signs of another shift - in particular, of how tennis has grown in Asia.

He told The Straits Times at the Tag Heuer event: "When I started to do well, there were more and more tournaments popping up (in Asia) but they were smaller tournaments.

"Now you've got some of the biggest tournaments in Asia, and it's great to see."

He pointed to the ATP men's tour calendar, which has 10 events in Asia this year, compared to six in 2007.

Singapore is the home for the WTA Finals from 2014 to 2018 while the men's equivalent ATP World Tour Finals were held in Shanghai in 2002 and from 2005 to 2008. These events are second in prestige on the tennis calendar only to the Grand Slams.

Even then, the growing number of events has not corresponded with what ultimately matters - Grand Slam titles.

While Asians have found success in doubles events - the Hsieh Su-wei-Peng Shuai axis is a prime example - success on the singles front has proved hard to come by.

Two-time Grand Slam winner Li Na's retirement last year marked the end of Asian tennis' last great torch-bearer. In men's tennis, no Asian has ever won a Grand Slam singles title, although many see Chang, born to Taiwanese parents in the United States, as a trailblazer who inspired generations of Asian players.

The International Tennis Hall of Famer is hopeful, though, that success for Asian players in the professional circuit is just around the corner. He said: "This was never going to be an overnight thing. Having tournaments here... that's going to help the younger players get better and better. It's going to take time, hopefully it's just a matter of that."

Japan's world No. 6 Kei Nishikori, who reached last year's US Open final before losing to Marin Cilic, has come closer than any Asian man to clinching a Grand Slam singles title.

And, in a manner which would please Chang, the pupil could set a similar buzz for Asian tennis - the same way the master's climactic victory on the clay of Roland Garros as a 17-year-old in 1989 did.

The California native has been coaching Nishikori since 2013, and believes his protege could make the breakthrough soon.

"Obviously Kei's really the best prospect right now. He's beaten all the best players in the world. He's going to have opportunities (in 2016) for sure," said Chang, who is still the youngest male player to win a Grand Slam singles title.

"We just have to peak him well, prepare him physically and mentally as well.

"I don't think he's far away. "

This article was first published on October 23, 2015.
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