AUSTRALIAN OPEN: Is Roger Human?

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Photo by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Melbourne –

In preparation for reporting a story on a Korean tennis player, I watched a documentary on Hyeon Chung’s homeland. It reported that 65 years ago Korea was “a country of abject poverty with its land ravaged by war and did not even have the most meager resources.” “This country,” said America’s General Douglas MacArthur, “has no future. This country will not be restored, even after 100 years. How can a rose blossom from a garbage hole?”

Wow, I thought, that was completely harsh – and so wrong. Then again, maybe the good General hadn’t heard of Samsung.

Now, Korea has surged brilliantly. It’s given us the most-watched YouTube video ever, the quirky “Gangnam Style,” and the “Korean Wave” that has rocked pop culture. Inventive South Korean movie directors Bong Joon-ho and Park Chan-wook have caught the eye of Hollywood. And guess what? Your TV screen, your phone or perhaps your car may come from the 11th biggest economy in the world.

South Korea will soon host the Olympics, and they created history by agreeing to walk into the games with their North Korean rivals.

Still, before this year’s Australian Open, South Korea’s impact on tennis had been slight. China had Li Na. Japan boasted Kei Nishikori. Central Asia gave us Sania Mirza and the Indo-Pak Express, while Singapore and Shanghai, among other Asian cities, host huge tourneys. Until now, Korea’s most renowned player may have been Lee Duck-hee, who was known for his deafness.

On the other hand, Chung now is famous for his problematic eyesight. As a boy he started tennis when a doctor suggested that the sport might improve his vision. Now, due to his iconic white glasses, he’s called “The Professor.” But tonight, in a briefly electric atmosphere on Rod Laver Arena, the professor was schooled.

En route to the semis, Chung had beaten the best brothers in the singles racket – Mischa Zverev and world No. 4 Sascha Zverev. He’d brought down the player who’s won the Aussie Open more than any other man, six-time champion Novak Djokovic. And he’d silenced the most controversial player of the year, Tennys Sandgren.

Roger Federer doesn’t cotton much to controversy. He’s more into winning, especially against younger, aspiring wannabees. He hadn’t lost to a player with a ranking like No. 58 Chung in five years. And from the first game, one sensed that Federer, the unblinking competitor, had come out – focused, fierce and on mission – determined not to give any breathing room to the kid who had ball-boyed for him and Rafa Nadal during a 2006 exhibition.

Returning with confidence, blasting forehands with “How old is this guy?” power and retrieving with ease, Roger brushed aside an early break point and settled into that seamless comfort zone that inspired the mother of all Federer commentaries – “Silence, genius at work.”

As Roger repeatedly held serve at love, the match quickly devolved into a man-against-boy mismatch until – after 1:02 when Roger was up 6-1, 5-2 – Chung quit due to blisters. It felt like a TKO. Truth be told, the 21-year-old had been suffering a blistering defeat and his withdrawal only fueled the debate whether the modern game is just too much for the human body.

Then again, there are some who insist Mr. Federer is simply not human. And now that on Sunday, the sublime 36-year-old wonder will be going for his sixth Australian Open and his twentieth major, who can disagree?

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