SEOUL, South Korea — In a month that has been dominated by relations with North Korea, the 2018 Winter Olympic Games and seasonably cold weather, Chung Hyeon arrived almost out of nowhere to put tennis on the front pages in South Korea.
The 21-year-old from Suwon, 34 kilometers (21 miles) south of Seoul, retired hurt due to blisters in the semifinal of the 2018 Australian Open against world number 2 Roger Federer but has become a household name in his homeland, where tennis has traditionally struggled for players and attention.
Subscription-based cable channel JTBC broadcast the match that ended with Federer leading 6-1, 5-2, pulling in more than 10% of the national audience on Friday afternoon, beating out the major terrestrial channels such as KBS.
“We are all proud of Chung Hyeon,” Kim Myung-joon, 31, from Seoul told Associated Press. “It was clear that he wasn’t moving so smoothly against Federer but he has done really well. People are talking about tennis for the first time I remember and Korea is a country where new trends can take off very quickly.”
Newspapers talked of the player’s ‘glorious wound’ after Chung shared a photo of his blister on social media.
“Tonight, I tried very hard to bring my utmost energy to the tennis court as usual,” Chung wrote. “However, I had to make a tough decision given that I cannot compete 100% against Roger, in front of many tennis fans.”
A headline in Seoul’s influential Joongang Ilbo newspaper read “Chung Hyeon’s proud blisters and a standing ovation from 15,000 fans.”
Comparisons have been drawn between the feet of Chung and legendary golfer Pak Se-ri. At the 1998 U.S. Open, the rookie Pak famously took off her shoes to step into a river on the 17th hole and make a shot that helped her win a first title. Korean women now dominate the sport.
Tennis bosses in Korea hope that Chung can do something similar on the court. The country started to take notice of the player, ranked 58, on Monday as he defeated Novak Djokovic in straight sets. He then defeated Tennys Sandgren of the United States in the quarterfinal, the first ever South Korean appearance at that stage of a Grand Slam tournament.
Attention is already turning to the French Open in May.