Asia needs more tennis heroes

Sometimes it takes more than one. One bursting out of the pack is a start but really, you need a few to step up and inspire a generation of youngsters to pick up a racket.

This is what Southeast Asian tennis needs. It needs role models because at the moment, there are precious few. A few more Srichapans would help.

The Thai burst onto the global scene in 2002 during Wimbledon – the tournament currently taking place in London.

It was the second round at Wimbledon and third-seed Andre Agassi was expecting a straightforward passage into the third round past the little known Thailand player.

The American, one of the games biggest names in the past quarter of a century, got more than he bargained for.

The Asian did not just beat the world famous star, he did so in straight sets. It was the start of quite a journey. He broke into the top 10 of the ATP rankings, becoming the first Asian born man to do so. He also won five ATP singles titles.

Before Paradorn, the stereotype of the Asian tennis player what that he was small and nimble. The boy from Khon Kaen was big, strong and powerful.

He became a superstar in Thailand, popular around the world and married, for a time, to former Miss Universe Natalie Glebova. He met the King and, as a cultural ambassador for Thailand, was given a red diplomatic passport.

He inspired a spike in tennis in the country and around Southeast Asia as a whole.

Few could forget the excitement in 2004 in the Thailand Open. Paradorn thrilled the home nation by getting to the semi-final. There he met the mighty Roger Federer.

The showdown was epic and the home-grown hero pushed Federer all the way. Paradorn narrowly lost the first set, came back to win the second comfortably but Federer’s experience shone through in the final set. Still, it seemed to herald the start of a new era for tennis in the region.

A motorbike accident (the star was always busy off the court) in which he broke both hands, forced a retirement in 2010. Perhaps it would have helped had the player managed to play longer.

Yet there have not really been a succession of stars to come from the region. Kei Nishikori is from Japan and currently ranked number nine in the world but the Paradorn effect has yet to translate into many Asians appearing at tournaments.

“I’m really happy to see Kei Nishikori – [who], of course, is a Japanese player, but [from] our Asian continent,” Paradorn said in 2014.

“I’m really proud to see a great tennis player from Asia. And now he’s ranked in the Top 10. I think in the future we will see more.

“Of course, if you look back 10, 12 years ago, at that time I was still playing and I was ranked in the Top 10. You can see it’s taken quite some time to see another great Asian male player. But I really believe that in the future, every country in Southeast Asia or Asia will try to make more and more great Asian tennis players to play in the ATP circuit.”

It has yet to happen. Yayuk Basuki, who reached a ranking of 19 back in 1997 believes that players from South-east Asia have to have more faith in themselves.

“I think one of the problems with tennis in Southeast Asia is the mentality,” she said. “Sometimes when they play against American or European opponents, they feel intimidated.

“If they have guts and believe in themselves and focus on playing their best tennis, instead of thinking about whether their opponent is the world number one or number 10, then I’m pretty sure they will perform well.”

Another issues she believes is that potential players from the region are put off.

“You have to be ready to travel nine to 10 months a year. That’s what most of the players find difficult because they feel homesick.”

That may be true and there are tales of football players from the region not moving overseas unless they can take friends or family members with them or if there is not a sizeable community of their countrymen and women to mix with.

That is why we need more players from the region to break through. If Nishikori can keep going into the second week of Wimbledon and show that Asian players can beat the best in the world, then it can only help.

We need more players to step forward and to leave their comfort zones. ASEAN tennis needs some more heroes.

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