Paradorn Fever

Thailand's best player ever has started a full-fledged tennis boom at home.

Srichaphan loses in five sets, but he's a winner here. Thailand, you see, is in the grip of "Paradorn Fever", as the press has come to call their country's infatuation with Srichaphan.

Paradorn Srichaphan's on-court success has led to a fast-growing presence off it. His face is plastered on magazine covers and billboards. He endorses Thai Airways, Chevrolet, Adidas, and Yonex. — Pic. REUTERS-

A year and a half ago, he was ranked outside the Top 100. Then last summer, Wimbledon happened: Srichaphan beat one of his idols, Andre Agassi, and became a superstar overnight. The 24-year-old went on to become the first Thai to finish in the Top 20 and the first Asian-born player to do so since Vijay Amritraj in 1980. The next-highest-ranked male Thai player right now is Danai Udomchoke, at No. 218. And while Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn has been a fixture in the WTA's top 30 for several years, she's won only one title.

Srichaphan has won three titles and defeated Top Tenners Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, and Juan Carlos Ferrero. Along the way, he's pocketed over $1 million in prize money, an enormous sum in Thailand, where the average monthly salary for someone with a college education is $200.

Srichaphan's success has kicked off a tennis boom in Thailand. The game has gone from a niche pastime played by the wealthy to the country's third most popular sport, behind soccer and Thai boxing. Racquet manufacturers are reporting double-digit sales increases, the ATP has moved the tournament in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, to Bangkok, and local television covers virtually every Srichaphan match live.

"Newspapers and magazines, as well as radio and TV, are now giving more coverage to tennis since Paradorn," says Jim Hawker, a correspondent for Thailand's largest English daily, The Bangkok Post. "In the past, only the majors were featured, but now other tennis news is covered."

But the greatest effect of Srichaphan mania may be on the next generation. He has caught the imagination of juniors. "We have been overwhelmed with demands for more equipment, coaches, clinics, and tournaments," says Vichit Yamboonruang of Thailand's Lawn Tennis Association. "The numbers aren't in, but the provincial coaches are reporting record highs in new students."

Srichaphan embraces his role-model status. "I feel I represent Asian tennis," he says. "I hope young Asians can look up to me like I looked up to Michael Chang."

The 6-foot-1 Srichaphan has charmed fans with his humility and modesty. Win or lose, after every match he bows in the traditional Thai style, palms pressed together, and he often puts on a shirt with the country's lucky color, red, when he's closing out a match.

"Paradorn embodies the spirit of Thailand", says Suwat Liptapanlop, the minister of labour. "He has provided all Thais with an example of what we can achieve with a dream and hard work."

Srichaphan's on-court success has led to a fast-growing presence off it. His face is plastered on magazine covers and billboards. He endorses Thai Airways, Chevrolet, Adidas, and Yonex. The government has appointed Srichaphan and his father, Chanachai, who's also his coach, cultural ambassadors. A 2002 public-opinion poll named Srichaphan "Thai of the Year," ahead of pop stars and politicians, and his hometown of Khon Kaen, about 300 miles north of Bangkok, issues a declaration that his biography be included in school curriculums. Late last year, he had an audience with King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand, an honour bestowed on very few, and gave the king his first pro trophy.

"All of the attention can be a bit much at times," Srichaphan says. "But I don't look at it as a burden. I'm glad that I can make so many people happy."

Robert Davis