Great Matches You’ve Probably Never Heard Of #3

Adidas International 2003, Final

Lee d. Ferrero, 4/6 7/6 7/6

When Hyung-Taik Lee defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero in the final of the 2003 Adidas International, he gained membership to that select club of players who have won an ATP title as a qualifier, and to the exclusive club of men to have done so while Korean. To date, this latter club still boasts only one member. For exclusivity, that’s hard to top.

A few things should be noted. Firstly, the Sydney field in those days was generally strong, and in 2003 it was especially so. The top five seeds had all contested the Masters Cup the year before, and the perennially disappointing Roger Federer was the defending champion. Secondly, Lee did not benefit from a cakewalk draw, notwithstanding a walkover against Marat Safin in the quarterfinal. He overcame Nicolas Lapentti, Andy Roddick and Wayne Ferreira en route to the final, all without dropping a set. Nevertheless, come the final, he was the overwhelming underdog, although even these deserve their day.

Prior to his meteoric decline some year and a bit later, Ferrero was a player I was inclined to cheer against. It was nothing personal. Indeed, the only time I’ve met him he was exceedingly gracious (perhaps more so than he had to be, though that’s another story). Nonetheless, I invariably found the contained smoothness of his game unappealing. (There is no defensible reason for it, but that sensation of irrational antipathy should be familiar to any sports fan.) Consequently, sympathies in our house were very much directed Lee’s way. Lee had first come to my attention at the US Open some years earlier, when, again as a qualifier, he’d fought through to the fourth round, and there discovered Pete Sampras. He had achieved little enough in the interim, and indeed his career year didn’t arrive until 2007, when he reached No.36 in the world. In 2003 he remained a tour lightweight.

The final itself was a strange affair, although now that I’ve reviewed it with better perspective I can see how it fits into a discernible (if odd) category, whereas before it resisted easy taxonomy. It was a shocking upset perpetually at risk of becoming a routine win for the favourite. Ferrero was the better player, in general and even for much of the day. He came out in a rush, immediately broke, held, then moved to 15-40 on Lee’s next service game. Lee held, however, and Ferrero settled into the disproportionately frustrated slouch he would retain until the end. Still, he rode that initial break to the end of the set, and despite Lee’s level picking up and some excellent exchanges, it all seemed routine. Ferrero still looked superior as the second set got going, but somehow found himself at 2/5 30-40. He saved that set point, then three more in the next game, and then another three in the tiebreak. Lee was choking, and it’s worth recalling that he’d blown match points against Ferrero at the Sydney Olympics. Later, the Korean saved a match point serving at 4/5 in the third. Then it got tense. Some random observations:

  • The recording I watched had commentary in Korean. If you’re going to listen to commentary you don’t understand, it might as well be in the language of one of the players, and preferably the underdog. These guys were less than impartial, although I’m confident they stopped short of wishing actual harm on Ferrero.
  • Having said that, it was startling just how much of the commentary I could understand. Often a long stream of Korean would be punctuated with a phrase like ‘backhand up the line’. Does Korean lack words for ‘up’, ‘the’ and ‘line’? Same goes for ‘first serve’, or ‘double fault’, or even ‘nice volley’.
  • Ferrero’s game is not dissimilar to Novak Djokovic’s, in that they are so technically sound that even their errors look smooth. Their losses remain incoherent, in the literal sense. Afterwards my recollection never quite tallies with the scoreline. Memory tells me Ferrero controlled most of the baseline exchanges. The stats show Lee winning 64% of points on his second serve.

Ferrero was doubtless entitled to feel as entitled as he looked. As the French Open and Masters Cup finalist, he already numbered among the sport’s elite. Consequently, this loss meant little, just a rare stumble in his otherwise inexorable ascent to the top. Conversely, it was a pretty big deal in Korea, inspiring national celebrations and a phone call from the President, although Lee was in the shower and missed it. Paradorn Srichaphan had won Chennai a week earlier, and there was a widespread hope that Asian tennis had truly arrived, a floodgate opening. It wasn’t to be. Lee was reintroduced to reality by Andre Agassi the following week in Melbourne. Having fallen to Srichaphan at Wimbledon, and fallen injured at the Shanghai Masters Cup, Agassi had no time for the Asian tennis boom, and won 6/0 6/0 6/1.

Ultimately, the 2003 Sydney final signified little, except of course to Lee, for whom it meant everything. In the history of men’s tennis, it merits no more than a footnote, although that footnote would be remiss it if failed to mention how dramatic, anxious and often brilliant the experience was.

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