The roadmap to creating a Vietnamese superstar

When then 17-year old Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989, one of tennis’ four largest tournaments, the world was intrigued. Standing at only 1.75m, Chang used his incredible foot speed, stamina and defense to counter the pace and power of his much larger, stronger contemporaries. Still the youngest ever men’s Grand Slam winner, Chang overcame a host of former champions in his Cinderella run to the title: Pete Sampras in the second round, famously employing an underhand serve at one point to defeat world number 1 Ivan Lendl in the fourth round, and Stefan Edberg in the finals. It was the first time an Asian face had hoisted one of tennis’ largest prizes.

Despite being hailed as a breakthrough figure for Asian-Americans, Chang, born in New Jersey, US to Chinese parents, was decidedly more American than Chinese. The rest of Asia would have to wait more than a decade for a truly homegrown champion to arise. Surprisingly, the next Asian tennis star wouldn’t come from China or Japan, but from tiny Thailand, in the muscular 1.85m form of Paradorn Srichaphan. The first men’s singles player from Asia to be ranked in the top 10 of the professional men’s ATP tour, Srichaphan proved that an Asian-born player who lived and trained in Asia could break into the game’s elite. On the women’s tour, recently retired, multiple Grand Slam winner, Li Na, similarly bolstered the case for female Asian tennis champions.

Spectators look on at the WTA Qualifying Future Stars - Vietnam - Image by James Pham-29 (OiVietNam_3N)

While Vietnam has yet to have a player ranked even in the top 1,000 on either tour, the country’s hopes currently rest with 18-year-old Tay Ninh native, Ly Hoang Nam. This summer, Vietnam entered the tennis conversation when Nam, partnering India’s Sumit Nagal, won the Boys’ Doubles title at the Junior Championships, Wimbledon. Nam also made the Round of 16 at the French Open, helping him attain a career-high junior ranking of world number 11.

In a country with almost 90 million people, the odds are favorable for a future Vietnamese tennis prodigy. However, developing tennis, widely seen as a sport of the upper class, faces unique challenges in a developing country such as Vietnam, where top-tier resources are scarce. “Vietnam needs to focus on providing coaches, facilities and funding for young talent,” says Alison Lee, Executive Vice President, International Group at ATP World Tour. “Climbing the professional tennis ladder is costly but if you have those three elements plus some local or regional playing opportunities, you are setting the system up well.”

One of the main obstacles to developing young talent lies in the organizational structure of tennis in Vietnam where typically player development is left to individual provinces or even private sponsors rather than a national entity. For example, Ly Hoang Nam is supported by investment and industrial development giant Becamex, headquartered in Binh Duong, and plays for its team and under its direction, which can sometimes mean playing professional tournaments abroad rather than representing Vietnam at events like SEA Games or Davis Cup.

Players check the draws at the WTA Qualifying Future Stars - Vietnam - Image by James Pham-35 (OiVietNam_3N)

“Tennis in Vietnam right now has a pyramid structure,” said Doan Quoc Cuong, Head of the Tennis Section at the national Sports Administration. “There are a lot of people who play tennis, but they’re 30-40 years old. It’s convincing juniors to pick up the sport and stay with it that’s more difficult. So what you end up with is a pyramid where only a few top juniors emerge. It’s not unlike raising a fighting cock,” he laughs, using a colorful analogy of prized birds that are showered with care and attention. “You put all your effort and pin all your hopes on one bird, but if he isn’t a champion, all that effort is wasted.”

According to Doan, an increase in prize money is part of the solution. “If winning a national tournament only pays out USD500, then what’s the point? It needs to be higher, like USD2,500 or USD5,000. That, people can live on. If parents see that their children can make a decent living at being a professional tennis player, then they’ll invest. Otherwise, good players can make more money becoming coaches to businessmen or teaching tennis at an international school than playing tennis themselves.”

“But Vietnam’s tennis future is bright,” he’s quick to add. “Vietnam has a tennis-playing culture. It’s normal to see people driving around with racquet bags slung over their shoulder. Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, we have a lot of young athletes.”

SINGAPORE- The opening ceremony on October 20, 2014 of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Picture by Paul Lakatos/WSG.

SINGAPORE- The opening ceremony on October 20, 2014 of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. Picture by Paul Lakatos/WSG.

Grassroot Plays

The August 20 Tennis Club in sunny Nha Trang is the setting for the third national junior championship of the summer, hosting the top teens and tweens from all over the country. Tran Thuy Thanh Truc, Vietnam’s #1 Under-14 girl, has drawn the first match of the day. The 7:30 am start is both a blessing and a curse, the cool temperatures exacerbating cold muscles unused to the early hour. The match starts off slowly with six consecutive return errors. Truc, though, is the first to steady the ship and takes a 2-0 lead with strong serving and well-placed shots to the corners which have the gaggle of security guards watching from the sidelines erupting in applause.

The stakes are high for Truc because results here go towards qualifying her for one of just two spots reserved for Vietnamese junior girls at the WTA Future Stars tournament in October in Singapore. Sponsored by the Women’s Tennis Association, the principal organizing body of women’s professional tennis, the Future Stars tournament showcases top-ranked U14 and U16 girls from 17 countries held in conjunction with the year-ending WTA Finals featuring the top 8 ranked players in the world (last year won by world number 1 Serena Williams). It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for girls from countries like Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar to gain experience against other players from the region as well as to witness firsthand how tennis is played at the very highest level, learning about athlete development, life in the public eye, media responsibilities and empowerment through tennis.

Melissa Pine - Image provided by WTA (OiVietNam_3N)Melissa Pine, photo by WTA

“The WTA Future Stars initiative had a phenomenal kickoff in 2014, with a fantastic turnout of young and talented girls throughout the region,” said Melissa Pine, Vice-President of WTA Asia Pacific and Tournament Director of the WTA Finals. “This expansion across 17 countries in Asia-Pacific [including Vietnam for the first time] shows our commitment to give back to the community through tennis, and present the stars of tomorrow on a global stage. We are excited to be able to showcase the passion and talents of these young athletes through WTA Future Stars. Through this initiative, we have developed and implemented a grassroots program for the region. It is an opportunity for the WTA to work with the local tennis associations to develop their emerging talent and give them the opportunity to compete with their peers across the region at the WTA Finals. We want to grow the sport throughout Asia Pacific and by engaging with local markets at a grassroots level we believe that this will encourage more young girls to take up the sport.”

For both players and spectators, the Asian tennis boom is most welcome. Fans get to see their favorite players up close and personal. For players, more tournaments means the opportunity to gain experience and more importantly, ranking points, closer to home, minimizing the high monetary and time costs of travel.

“The appetite for tennis in the region continues to grow and for the past couple of years, we have had new tournaments coming up throughout the region,” continued Pine. “The new WTA Elite Trophy will be held in Zhuhai, China, after the WTA Finals for the first time. Host city of a WTA 125k series event in 2014 and 2015, Nanchang will also have its status elevated to an International event next year. In 2016, the WTA calendar will have a record nine WTA tournaments across Mainland China, Hong Kong and Chinese Taipei, compared to just two in 2012.”

Back on court, it’s easy to see why Truc names world number 2 Simona Halep as her tennis idol. At 1.68m, the diminutive Romanian is almost 12 cm shorter than the average Top 10 player, but her retrieval skills and ability to turn defense to offense are second-to-none. “Nothing gets past her,” says Truc, the daughter of a non-tennis playing housewife mother and government worker father. Introduced to tennis by a cousin at the age of eight, Truc typically trains three hours a day, four days a week (double in summer) with the goal of one day becoming a professional tennis player. Today, though, isn’t her day. She misses a few too many short balls and ends up losing a 6-9 pro set. However, it’s only the round robin stage, and by the weekend, young Truc has lifted the trophy without dropping another set. In October, she’ll join Nguyen Thu Phuong, Vietnam’s #1 ranked U-16 girl at the Future Stars Tournament in Singapore.

Nguyen Thu Phuong - WTA Qualifying Future Stars - Vietnam - Image by James Pham-5 (OiVietNam_3N)

Through events like the WTA Future Stars initiative, Vietnamese players are getting the boost they need to get to the next level where professional tennis can be seen as a viable option. “We understand that for developing countries, state support for sports can be difficult to secure but we believe that offering opportunities for youngsters to compete in an event like the WTA Future Stars will help to bolster the case for additional funding,” said Pine.

For lovers of the game, the future of Vietnamese tennis is brighter than it has ever been, and the benefits are there to be had. “Tennis is often called a gladiatorial battle,” said Pine, using her own analogy. “It is just you and your opponent. That teaches you mental strength, to dig deep, to battle through the tough points and hopefully win the match. Tennis and sports are a great way to foster friendships as you get to meet with people from all different walks of life who share a common passion. It doesn’t get much better than that.”

The 2015 edition of the BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global takes place October 23 to November 1, and will see an expanded eight days of competition and the continued inclusion of the WTA Legends Classic, WTA Rising Stars Invitational and WTA Future Stars Finals competitions. Entry to the Future Stars tournament is free. Tickets for the other events start at S$16.90 and can be purchased through Sports Hub Tix at www.sportshub.com.sg/WTAFinals. Log on to the WTA Finals website www.WTAFinals.com for more information.

Images by James Pham