It was just another typical gloomy October day in Taichung, as I rushed off a cab at a busy intersection and tried to locate the cafe for probably one of the most exciting interviews in my life.
Normally, I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by excitement before my interviews, but this was a chance for which I knew I had to be well-prepared. When I finally found the cafe and walked in, a young man in his sporty outfit was already expecting me at the counter. I quickly took the seat next to him, while still trying to secretly pinch myself to prove that this moment was really here.
As a self-proclaimed tennis enthusiast, I fell in love with the sport when I picked up my first racket at the age of 10. While I was never talented enough to make it my career, I had dedicated a huge part of my life playing, following and falling for it. I have been closely following the development of Taiwan’s tennis scene since 2001, and to my surprise, there hasn’t been much change since Lu Yen-hsun (盧彥勳) , the long-time No.1 player in Taiwan, came on the scene.
While the media and tennis fans were wondering whether the future of Taiwan’s tennis would end once Lu retires, Jason Jung (莊吉生) was quietly making waves as he steadily climbed up the ranking. By the beginning of 2016, he was already the No. 2 player from Taiwan, ranking well inside the world’s top 200. Earning an exclusive chance to sit down and interview him, naturally, gave me goosebumps.
How his tennis career began
Jung was born in California in 1989. Like most professional players, Jung started playing tennis at the age of 5 for leisure, but soon started playing junior tournaments at the age of 8. According to him, it was quite easy to gain rankings since there were tournaments every weekend in California. He continued to play through each age group, and maintained a top 5 ranking in Southern California. However, it wasn’t enough to just maintain his state ranking, as college recruitment depended a lot on national rankings, so Jung also started playing national tournaments in his teenage years, owning an equally impressive result of being the top 15 players nationwide.
“I was doing well at the time, and all my focus was on tennis,” said Jung. “I just kept playing national and local tournaments, with some occasional international junior tournaments in between. It was easy for me to go to college because my name was out there. I ended up choosing University of Michigan and played for them for four years.”
After a lengthy junior career, Jung was eventually burned out after the junior year at Michigan, and he decided to try something different. He took a job back in California after graduation, but on the second day of his job, the company announced layoffs. By the end of the summer, Jung lost his job and was left feeling confused about what to do next. A childhood friend then suggested that he play in an ITF (International Tennis Federation) tournament in Seattle.
“I didn’t know what else to do, so I decided to go play,” said Jung. “I won the tournament pretty easily without even touching my racket for a few months. After the tournament, I decided to play on the tour full time. I thought it would be easy for me to earn my first ATP point, but after getting sick at my first tournament in India, followed by a few more first round exits, I realized that life on the tour was much harder than I thought.”
Three months into his professional tennis life, Jung began to have doubts about his decision. Finally in February, 2012, Jung successfully collected his first ranking point in Mexico. Afterwards, Jung was able to make steady progress with his ranking in the next few years, and by 2015, he was ranked around the world’s top 200.
But even as he thought things would get easier for him, the doubt and pressure never really disappeared.“Some people say that after you get your first ATP point, you will be more relaxed,” said Jung. “But it was still tough for me. However, I was able to maintain a steady climb up the ranking every year since I started playing professionally. I was also able to keep up with the expenses, which could be something difficult for players ranked outside of the world’s top 200.”
For Jung, life as a professional tennis player involves more than just tennis, as he has to handle everything from planning schedule to booking tickets all by himself, and he believes that being on his own sometimes prevents him from seeing his problems clearly. As a result, growth came a bit slower than he expected.
“For players whose talents are recognized, they have a complete team around them, and I think it is better that way for professional players,” said Jung. “However, I think I have learned a lot just by doing everything myself, because it’s almost like running a startup.”
A desire to play for Taiwan and a career breakthrough year
Jung made the decision of representing Taiwan in 2015 after feeling the desire to play for his parents’ homeland. Growing up as a Taiwanese American, Jung had always dreamed about playing well in tennis and being able to help promote Taiwan as a successful tennis player. After spending the last few years in Taiwan, he was able to appreciate the Taiwanese culture within him, while hoping to get a higher ranking that can help Taiwan become more visible internationally.
Apart from his desire to promote Taiwan through tennis, Jung also believes that he has a better chance to be recognized by representing Taiwan. The wider recognition may help with attracting more sponsors and growing his career.
However, the transition has been much more difficult than he originally imagined. The lack of familiarity with Taiwan’s tennis system, plus limited sponsorship and government funding opportunities, forced Jung to spend more time figuring things out and building up his reputation.
“There were a lot of things I didn’t know about Taiwan, like how the federation and system works,” said Jung. “There were also very few sponsors, and government funding also required me to get a Taiwanese I.D. card first. As a result, it took me a while to understand the whole picture, but things are starting to get better. I have Yonex Taiwan sponsoring me now, and there are also a few individual businesses who have contacted me to talk about sponsorship. It’s not great yet, but I think it’s better than what I would have had in the US. The main thing is if I did well, I would probably get more sponsors.”
Apart from the unfamiliarity with Taiwan’s system, Jung also thinks that Taiwan needs to have better infrastructure for its players. With no national training center as a base, players generally train on their own, and that makes it hard for them to practice and train on a regular basis while being back in Taiwan. Jung says that the most important thing now for the government is to establish a base for the younger generation.
“I think the most important thing is creating an environment for tennis and there needs to be a national training center,” said Jung. “Players need somewhere they can come back to, whether for practicing or physical training. Since most of the younger players now are training on their own, having a national base will be beneficial to their career development.”
After enjoying several successful weeks in China, Jung’s ranking peaked to a career high of 143 in the world in October,2016, but it was a hard-earn result after contemplating about quitting tennis on numerous occasions in the past few years. According to Jung, he was able to concentrate more on the matches when he played in China, something that he found hard to do whenever he played in Taiwan.
“I think I play better in China because there is less distraction,” said Jung. “In Taiwan, there will be friends who want to take me out to dinner, and I want to go with them because I don’t see them often. However, at the same time, I need to focus on getting ready for the match next day, but in China, I can be very focused and on schedule.”
When asked what’s the secret behind his career breakthrough year in 2016, Jung credited the success to his continuous efforts to improve, as well as advice from one of his doubles partner. He believed that after playing professionally for several years, he is finally able to understand the advice he receives, and they started to translate into his on-court performance. He not only has more understanding about how to improve, but he can also understand the reason behind his losses more comprehensively.
A healthier 2017 and life after tennis
For all professional tennis players, life after career is always something they have to consider. After spending most of his life playing tennis, Jung is not interested in becoming a full-time tennis coach. With his strong interests in sports and nutrition, Jung believes that he can consider a career in the fitness industry, and perhaps one day have his own business.
“I met a couple people who have opened up fitness studios or gyms, so maybe I can join their businesses or start one of my own afterwards,” said Jung. “But it’s also hard to say. I have met people in the banking or tech industry, so I mean who knows what opportunities will arise. I like fitness but if something else comes up, I can take that as well.”
With his body fully recovered from the minor injuries he sustained at the end of 2016, Jung is ready to make bigger strides in 2017. As he starts the year with a much higher ranking in 2017, Jung plans to adjust his schedule while trying to put together a more permanent team around him and stay healthy. After playing his first Davis Cup for Taiwan, Jung also plans to represent Taiwan in the upcoming Summer Universiade in August. With no fixed timeframe for his professional career, Jung wants to take things one step at a time and keep his options open.
“I think for now, at least I will try to play the Summer Universiade,” said Jung. “And since my Yonex contract ends at the end of 2017, I will definitely play until then and see how my results are.”
As most players’ seasons start to kick into high gears, it will be exciting to see Jung continue his good form in 2016 and achieve more success in 2017.
(Feature photo of Jason Jung, provided by Jason Jung)