Hyeon Chung had his share of highs and lows in 2018. He caught everyone’s attention with his run at the Australian Open, defeating Novak Djokovic and the Zverev brothers — Alexander and Mischa — en route to the semifinals, where he was forced to retire against Roger Federer with blisters on his feet.
The South Korean was tipped for a breakthrough year. Starting the season ranked 58, he had reached a career-high 19 by April before being forced to end his season prematurely in October with a series of injuries — to his foot, leg and back.
In the 2019 pre-season, Chung, the youngest Grand Slam semifinalist since Marin Cilic in 2010, is investing a lot on fitness. He is getting used to custom-made footwear to combat the persistent blisters.
“I had injured my feet with blisters so I got special insoles made for my shoes. I have been trying to get used to it in the off-season. I think it will work, I hope,” he said at the turn of the year.
Going by his straight-sets pre-quarters upset at the ongoing Maharashtra Open to world No. 95 Ernest Gulbis on Wednesday, Chung has a lot of work left to do. His movement seemed restricted and he didn’t look comfortable when stretching for returns.
The pair had met each other before, with the Korean winning the first-round qualifier of the ATP 500 Barcelona Open 7-6(2), 6-2. Gulbis, who remembers the game, said after the match that he played to his strengths as well as Chung’s weaknesses.
“He plays well when the returns are with pace and flat, but he looked nervous and tight. He began missing his serve and I mixed my shots, using the slice and the spin, to get back in the game,” Gulbis said after defeating Chung with the exact scoreline, a little more than eight months since Barcelona.
“I ran, played (to) my defence well and was getting all the balls. This is what makes people frustrated, playing against someone who is feeling well physically and can run down every ball.”
Chung, who spoke of having “spent a lot of time working on cardio and in the courts,” has more issues than just getting used to his new shoes. His back was visibly covered in pink medical tape and his upper body movement looked rusty.
With the likes of Alexander Zverev, Karen Kachanov and Stefanos Tsitsipas fighting it out to be one to force a change of guard at the Slams, the coming season is going to be a crucial one for the 2017 Next Gen ATP Finals winner.
The sour start in Pune, hopefully, isn’t an indication of another injury-prone season.
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