Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lu Yen Hsun makes history in style

It was only a year and a half ago when I wrote a match analysis of Lu's stunning upset of former world #3 David Nalbandian in the 2nd round of the 2009 Australian Open. It was no small feat. Nalbandian was one of the few players that the mighty Federer considered to be one of his biggest rivals early in his career. To beat a player of that caliber certainly deserved praise on paper, however, I knew the Nalbandian he beat was far from his best form. In fact, Australian Open 2009 would be his last grand slam to date. The talented Argentinian would never regain his form.

I remember in the analysis giving credit to Lu's gutsy performance, but was also harsh of his obvious weaknesses. Loopy backhand without much penetration, mediocre serve, consistency issues on his ground strokes, defensive minded player. The making of his game resembled a counter punching style that would have worked only in the 90s and early 2000s, when counter punchers with a lot of ground speed could make up for their lack of power. We have seen many players of this style peak early during their career only to recess into 2nd tier or lower rankings in recent years.

Michael Chang won the 1987 French Open at the tender age of 17, becoming the first in the group of young elite US players to win a grand slam, and since then reached just 2 more grand slam finals for the rest of his career. Lleyton Hewitt, won his 2 grand slams very early in his career, Wimbledon and US Open in 2000 and 2001 respectively, it has been 5 years since he last reached beyond the Quarter Finals at a grand slam. Both textbook counter punchers that became victims of the modern game.

Tennis today has changed drastically with the improvement of racket and string technology and the general fitness of athletes. It has been mentioned by many experts and retired pros such as McEnroe and Sampras that today's game is a power game. Having penetration on both wings and the ability to setup a point from the base line and hit a winner from any part of the court is a common trait shared by all the current top 10 players. Just 10 years ago, you would see more finesse players such a Tim Henmen, Juan Carlos Ferrero have their place in the top 10. Not anymore. Today's game is power power and more power. Del Potro's display of his canon of a forehand in winning the 2009 US Open against Federer is a testament to this trend.

I have to admit, my assessment of Lu's future back in 2009 was not optimistic. He was a player that played a style that had long been put in the book of the obsolete approach to tennis, and was only going to get harder for him. He may continue to perform well in the challenger circuit, but he would never become a force to be reckoned with in any ATP tournament.

However, the Lu Yen Hsun I watched today was a different beast. There is a good chance he was playing out of his mind, but it was evident to me that all the glaring weaknesses I pointed out in his game a year ago was long behind him. A 120mph serve that he placed with good accuracy, very flat ground strokes that had plenty of penetration, one that imposed his game on his opponent, and went into a point working the angles to setup for that eventual winner. These are the exact tools you need to succeed in today's game.

If he can continue with the kind of consistency he mustered up today, and he certainly showed that he has the capability of performing at this level, he could break into the top 50 and become one of those dangerous dark horses at grand slams. Let's not kid ourselves, this could very well be his best achievement, but he has already cemented a place in the history books by becoming only the 2nd Asian man to reach the QF at a grand slam tournament. Tennis, after all, is one of the toughest sport both physically and mentally, and from a nation where sports is just not taken all that seriously, this is a colossal achievement and I am tremendously proud to be affiliated under the same flag. He can now proudly join the ranks of Chien Ming Wang, Kuo Hong Chih as one of the biggest stars in Taiwan sports today.

Lu, now 26, has at least another 3 years of prime time tennis ahead of him. The current repertoire of strokes he has in his arsenal is a good sign of things to come. On his back he carries not just his responsibility to achieve something substantial for himself as a tennis player, but also as the new star of Taiwan. His achievements today will transcend beyond just another statistic in the books, but inspire interest in this relatively unpopular sport in Taiwan. Today will most certainly go down as one the most important moments in the history Taiwan tennis. I look forward to his future performance, and will support him like I always have as a fellow Taiwanese.

ESPN Highlights of the match. Kudos for saying he's from Taiwan and not Chinese Taipei.