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(Yonhap Feature) Korean tennis: Where's the love?
By Richard Leiper
Contributing writer
SEOUL, March 14 (Yonhap) -- At his peak in 2007, Lee Hyung-taik was arguably Asia's most successful male tennis player. Unlike his Thai contemporary Paradorn Srichaphan, who had climbed the world rankings to No. 9 only to flare out within a few years, Lee led a career of sustained success after he first grabbed headlines in 2000.

   Upon retiring in 2009, with no Korean successors to pass the torch to, Lee opened up his own tennis academy in South Korea's Gangwon Province.

   "I want to pour all my effort into bringing up young talented tennis players," he was quoted as saying at the time.

   But in the three years since, Korea has failed to produce another tennis star. And in a market hampered by exorbitant fees for tennis coaches and sparse public facilities, young Koreans are hardly motivated to pick up a racket.

   "First of all, we need a Korean superstar like we have in golf to help raise the status of tennis in Korea," said Oh Sung-ho from the Korea Tennis Association, referring to groundbreaking Korean golfers Pak Se-ri and Choi Kyoung-ju, who have been credited with ushering in a wave of youth talent.

   "To help achieve this goal we secured funding and special coaches from the ITF (International Tennis Federation) to help our Special Junior Development Program," Oh said. "We hope in the future this will propel Korean players into the world's top 100."

Children participate in Play and Stay tennis program at the Jincheon National Training Center. (Photos courtesy of Korea Tennis Association)

But there is still a long way to go, as the highest ranked Korean at this time, Jeong Suk-young, is sitting at 318.

   Korean tennis fans seem despondent when asked about the future development of the sport. Fans feel tennis is running out of support, players and facilities, with younger fans following the travails of seasoned international players such as Andy Roddick and Rafael Nadal. Tennis fan Kim Byung-woon, 37, said, "There aren't enough courts per player in Korea, and the court fees are expensive. It seems it would help to develop our tennis club culture."

   "The only way for a nation to develop their tennis status is to get as many children playing the sport as possible," said Matt Cronin, a senior editor at Inside Tennis magazine and a Fox News contributor, "ensuring there is a good system in place to encourage them to keep playing and track their progress, so if there are kids with real potential that they can actually realize it, rather than being forced to stop because they didn't have the resources to go further."

   This development formula has worked for other tennis stars who have recently caught the limelight.

   China's Li Na, who became Asia's first and only Grand Slam champion at the 2011 French Open, is the type of poster girl the KTA are crying out for. Currently ranked sixth in the world, Li has also contested the Australian Open final twice. The Grand Slams (Majors) are globally the most important annual tennis tournaments. Wimbledon and the French, Australian and U.S. opens have provided champions from each continent, barring Asia. Li is the notable exception.

   Her success has come on the back of government support and heavy investment by Beijing. Over the course of just over a decade, China has seen an exponential rise in public interest and the number and quality of tennis facilities. According to the World Tennis Association (WTA), tennis is now the third most popular sport in China, behind soccer and basketball.

   Now Li is one of three Chinese women who occupy spots in the world's top 40.

   "Tennis is different from many other sports, because you cannot make progress without heavy investment," said Sun Jinfang, the former director of the Chinese Tennis Association.

   Scotsman Andy Murray, who seems to have single-handedly vindicated Britain's tennis world, in fact had to seek out better infrastructure overseas in order to upgrade his talent. According to the BBC, "poor facilities, confused funding choices and inadequate coaching" were reasons for Britain's poor performances in the decades before Murray's rise. His mother, Judy, a former Scottish No. 1 herself, coached him until he moved to Spain as a 15-year-old in search of better facilities and competition.

   It's an approach that others, like Japan's Kei Nishikori, have followed. As Asia's highest ranked male player in the top 20, Nishikori left his home country to hone his talent at the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, which boasts Maria Sharapova, the Williams sisters and Andre Agassi among its former trainees.

From left: Lee Hyung-taik and Sohn Seung-ri, coaches for the KTA Junior team, and Doug MacCurdy, a development office for the junior team, at the Jincheon training center in summer 2012.

Korea could take one of two routes to develop its own Sharapova or Murray. The first would be to follow China's example of government backing and huge tennis investment in facilities and structure. The alternative would be Japan's method of identifying talent at a young age and sponsoring their development abroad.

   The latter may be a more realistic objective, given the success of Murray and Nishikori, both rising stars in the tennis world from countries without great tennis heritage.

   "But does the Korean federation have enough money to do so?" Cronin asked. "That I'm not too sure of, but considering that Kia is the Aussie Open's largest sponsor I would think there is enough tennis sponsorship money around."

   Attracting world-class competition for local spectators would also be a step in the right direction, Cronin said.

   "Having at least one ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) tour can help as it gives the general population a chance to see professional tennis live, which is always the best way to introduce people to the sport," he said.

   For example, the re-introduction of the China Open has been seen as another important step in establishing public interest in the sport. According to the Chinese Tennis Association, 130 million Chinese are interested in tennis and 5 million -- the population of Murray's native Scotland -- are active participants.

   For its part, Korea introduced the Hansol Korea Open in 2004. The international event, part of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), has drawn such top players as Sharapova and Serena Williams. Unfortunately, there isn't a male equivalent.

   As it stands now, without any real change in Korea's approach to tennis, it could be many years, if not decades, before Korea can challenge for the Grand Slams.