For all the attention the NBA has gotten for its influx of
European and South American players and the arrival of a gentle
giant from China, the truly global court sport is men's tennis.
The top ranks of the ATP resemble nothing so much as a model
U.N.--albeit with tighter abs and better-looking girlfriends. In
a display of international convergence, players from five
continents have joined the Top 10 this year.
No player from an emerging tennis nation is more intriguing than
Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan. A 24-year-old from Bangkok,
Srichaphan (pronounced SREE-sha-pan) is ranked No. 11 in the
world and earlier this year became the first Asian-born player to
crack the Top 10. Srichaphan's star turn came at Wimbledon in
2002, when he satayed Andre Agassi in straight sets. Galvanized,
Srichaphan finished the year as hot as anyone on tour, beating
world No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, winning two tournaments and upgrading
his ranking by more than 100 spots. When the U.S. Open commences
on Aug. 25, Srichaphan, playing on his preferred surface of fast,
hard courts, will be a player to watch. "I'm still not as
consistent week to week as I'd like to be," he says. "But I know
I can play with anyone."
Like Tiger Woods, whose mother is Thai, Srichaphan often competes
in a shirt that's red, a color that represents good luck in
Thailand. A practicing Buddhist, he says a short prayer before
his matches and betrays an unshakable calm on the court. After
matches he performs the wai (pronounced WHY), a gesture that
entails placing his hands together near his face and bowing in
all directions. "The wai is a show of respect and a thank-you to
the crowd and my opponent," he explains. "It's like saying, I am
humbled to be here." It was hardly surprising that he won the
tour's sportsmanship award in 2002. "You won't find a nicer guy,"
says Andy Roddick, who beat Srichaphan in the final of the RCA
Championships in Indianapolis two weeks ago. "He's just so cool
Srichaphan's playing style is anything but. He has a powerful
game, and his serve recalls the Hammer of Thor. He's also capable
of baseline pyrotechnics, especially off the forehand. Too often,
however, he attempts the spectacular when the situation demands
the routine. "Not having patience can be my weakness," he says.
Paradorn's father, Chanachai, taught himself how to play tennis
by reading books and watching instructional videos. Eventually he
quit his bank job to become the full-time coach of his two older
sons, Thanakorn and Naratorn. Though they were both highly
regarded juniors, neither found traction on the pro tour.
Paradorn, however, fared better, and by 20 he was a Top 100
Srichaphan is rock-star famous back home. Last winter he was
granted an audience with Thai king Bhumibol, who asked if he
could keep the trophy from Srichaphan's first tournament title.
(The player assented.) He is often approached on the street by a
legion of admirers who touch him gently and then scamper away.
His matches are aired live in Thailand and are offered as a taped
option for passengers aboard Thai Air flights. Predictably,
Western companies seeking to penetrate Southeast Asia have
targeted Srichaphan as a pitchman. He already has lucrative deals
with Chevrolet and Adidas.
Thanks in part to Srichaphan's success, tennis is taking off
throughout Southeast Asia. The ATP recently awarded an event to
Bangkok, and the standard barometers of the popularity of tennis
as a participatory sport--ball and racket sales and court
construction--also indicate a surge. "I see more kids playing,
and that's good because we haven't had many players make it,"
says Srichaphan. "We're still catching up. Sometimes I tell
people [in tennis circles] that I'm from Thailand, and they say,
In the next few years you can expect fewer wheres and more wais.
COLOR PHOTO: CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP INNER PEACE A Buddhist, Srichaphan (with Mom and Dad, above) prays before each match.
COLOR PHOTO: SEAN GARNSWORTHY/GETTY IMAGES (INSET) [See caption above]
Here's how the men's top 100 breaks down by continent and by
Players in Players in
Continent Top 100 Country Top 100
1. Europe 64 1. Spain 15
2. South America 16 2. U.S. 12
3. North America 12 3. France 10
4. Africa 3 4. Argentina 9
Australia 3 5. Germany 5
6. Asia 2 6. Russia 4
--Rankings through July 28