Chung said he later served in the military for a few weeks, which did not pause his tennis career for long. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that Chung can win the Australian Open, too, after defeating three seeded players, including the six-time champion Novak Djokovic in the fourth round.
“Look, I’m very excited to play Chung,” said Federer, 36, who will face an opponent 15 years his junior at this late stage of a major tournament for the first time. “I thought he played an incredible match against Novak. To beat him here is one of the tough things to do in our sport, I believe. I know that Novak maybe wasn’t at 110 percent, but he was all right. He was giving it a fight till the very end. To close it out, that was mighty impressive.”
Djokovic was definitely not at the peak of his elastic powers, coming off a six-month break and still suffering from right elbow pain. But he posed a serious challenge to Chung, who was also facing the mental barrier of playing his idol in the same stadium where Djokovic beat Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in 2008 to win his first major title.
That was the first Grand Slam final that Chung remembered watching on television, but he had been pretending to be Djokovic for years in makeshift matches against his older brother, Hong, in a parking lot in front of the family’s home and elsewhere.
“It was similar like minitennis,” Chung said. “My model was Novak, and my brother liked Rafa because he is playing also lefty.”
So who won, Novak or Rafa?
“I think Rafa won because Novak was too small,” Chung said with a laugh, gesturing toward Hong, 24, who was sitting nearby.
The Chungs’ father, Suk-jin, played tennis. But Hong was the real measuring stick, although their mother, Young-mi, confirmed on Tuesday that Hyeon began playing tennis after a doctor said it would help his poor eyesight.
“The doctor said instead of looking at the tiny letters of the book, it’s better to look at the green color,” she said through a translator. “In Korea, all the fences around the tennis courts were green. His older brother was already playing tennis, so he started playing tennis as a hobby.”
The younger brother eventually grew up, and Hyeon said he beat Hong twice in Asian Futures events.
“My brother was always nice about it, and I really appreciate it,” Hyeon said.
He is now an imposing athlete, one whose acrobatic defense and ability to generate power in extension look very familiar.
“Reminds me obviously a lot of Novak,” Federer said. “The way he’s able to slide on forehand and backhand and use the hard court as a clay court and get balls back and stay aggressive in defense.”
Though unseeded upon arrival in Melbourne, the 58th-ranked Chung was considered a leader of the new wave in men’s tennis, which has been called Next Gen by ATP Tour leaders who are deeply concerned about beginning to bridge the charisma chasm that will be left when Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal move on.
But can you still be considered a Next Gen player when you are in the final four of a Grand Slam tournament?
The answer seems obvious, and it must be even more self-evident to the players Chung has swashbuckled his way past in Melbourne.
On Wednesday in the quarterfinals, Chung, in the favorite’s role, for a change, ended the run of 97th-ranked Tennys Sandgren of the United States.
“He does so many cool things with how he moves and how he returns and how he plays with his forehand,” Sandgren said. “It was kind of like an extremely difficult puzzle to try to figure out. I wasn’t able to figure it out, but I enjoyed trying.”
The victory made Chung the first Korean, male or female, to reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam singles tournament. It also guaranteed that Chung will become the highest-ranked South Korean player in history after the Australian Open, surpassing Hyung-taik Lee, who peaked at No. 36 in the ATP rankings in 2007. Chung will break into the top 30 on Monday and could go as high as No. 10, if he wins the tournament.
In South Korea, where tennis is a minor sport, his victory over Djokovic was front-page and home-page news. Chung has an opportunity, like Kei Nishikori in Japan, to capitalize on being a breakthrough player in an affluent Asian nation.
Chung’s agent, Stuart Duguid of WME/IMG, described the South Korean tennis market as “emerging.”
“I’d say it replicates Japan at the early stages of Kei’s career,” he said. “It’s potentially very lucrative.”
Gimmick or no gimmick, the Next Gen tournament in Milan appears to have played a role in helping Chung move on to bigger things in a hurry.
“In my opinion, because of that tournament, he really started to believe, ‘I can win tournaments, and I can beat two, three or four good players in a row,’ ” said Neville Godwin, Chung’s new South African coach. “Every match at Next Gen was maybe not in the same environment as Melbourne, but it was a big stage, and you had to bring your best stuff. And I think the scoring system they used with shorter sets meant there were way more big points, so those guys are pretty well geared up for this year. Hyeon worked really hard in the off-season because he knew what he was capable of.”
Godwin was aware, too. After four years working with the South African veteran Kevin Anderson, they split at the end of last season, when Godwin was voted ATP coach of the year.
Anderson shares an agent with Chung, and Duguid reached out to Godwin about working with Chung, who is based in Seoul.
Chung’s English is improving, which made working with an English-speaking coach more attractive. Godwin was intrigued by the idea of molding a great young talent (Anderson is 31).
“There were a few things Hyeon just needed to do a little bit better,” Godwin said. “Obviously he has got great wheels, but you can’t just defend for 10 years as a pro, otherwise you end up like Andy Murray with hip surgery and probably sooner.”
Godwin and Chung changed Chung’s serve in the off-season, bringing his feet closer together to create a more solid platform for him to deploy his extraordinary leg strength.
“It’s kind of like an Andy Roddick serve,” Godwin said, referring to the retired American star. “Obviously Hyeon’s legs are the power base of his game. The more he can bring them into the equation, the better.”
Chung will need to sprint, lunge and blunt attack after attack if he is to stay with Federer, who has yet to drop a set and is closing in on his 20th major singles title with none of his traditional rivals in the mix for a change.
This will be Federer’s 43rd appearance in a Grand Slam semifinal, an Open era record by a big margin. This will be Chung’s first.
But it is worth remembering, as he walks onto the blue court wearing his white-frame glasses, that Chung has played for high stakes before and ended up with a gold medal.
“He clearly has nothing to lose,” Federer said. “I will tell myself the same, and we’ll see what happens.”