- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 14, 2002

Before beginning the remarkable and altogether unlikely tale of Thailand's top tennis talent, a disclaimer is in order:
Yes, summer afternoons in Bangkok are hot, muggy and mostly miserable.
No, that doesn't mean Paradorn Srichaphan likes the weather in Washington any better.
(Thank you very much).
"It's really hot in Thailand," Srichaphan said with a laugh. "But it's still hot for me here. I'm not really at home."
For Srichaphan, the No.14 seed in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, separation and perspiration are all in a day's work. Since January, the 23-year-old Bangkok native has climbed to the No.53 spot in the ATP Champions Race, making him the highest-ranked Asian in men's tennis.
Not to mention the only Thai player with a victory over top-seeded Andre Agassi. At this year's Wimbledon, no less.
"We definitely have great hopes for Paradorn," said Colin Smeeton, Srichaphan's agent and the director of tennis for SFX. "He's a fantastic athlete. He's established himself as a top-50 player. Each year, he's progressively gotten better."
While tennis is unquestionably a global sport more than 100 nations are represented in the ATP media guide few Asians have broken into the upper echelons of men's singles.
Outside of Srichaphan, only South Korea's Hyung-Taik Lee (No.79) is ranked in the top 100. And although Thailand's Danai Udomchoke qualified for the Legg Mason main draw, this is just the second time he and Srichaphan have appeared in the same tournament.
"This is the first time that's happened in the States," Srichaphan said. "There's not too many Asians [on tour]."
As such, Srichaphan's story is long and winding far more so than the draining, 20-hour flight from Thailand to the United States or the 10-week tennis tournament road trips that Srichaphan takes for granted.
It starts with Srichaphan's father, Chanachai, who took up the sport in his 30s after attending a tournament in Bangkok that featured Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl.
Undaunted by his lack of actual on-court experience, Chanachai devoured every tennis book he could find. He watched hours of instructional video. He taped professional matches. A banker by trade, he even opened a tennis academy, where his oldest sons, Thanakorn and Naratorn, were the prize pupils.
"My older brothers would go to the tennis courts, and I would just follow them," said Srichaphan, who began playing at 7. "It took a long time for me [to start beating them]. They're good."
Although Thanakorn and Naratorn finished their junior careers ranked in the ITF Top 10 and went on to represent Thailand in Davis Cup play neither enjoyed much luck as a professional. Coming from a nation with the tennis tradition of, well, pocket lint, the brothers struggled with the Darwinian nature of ATP life. Travel was expensive. Sponsors were lacking. Ranking points were few and far between.
Playing in minor league Challenger tournaments, the pair combined for just more than $10,000 in ATP prize money too little to fund even a year on the tour. Eventually, both scaled back their pro careers to pursue university degrees.
"The results aren't going to come in those first tournaments," Srichaphan said of his older brothers. "It takes a while. You have to get experience."
The world's No.10 junior at the end of 1996, Srichaphan entered the ATP ranks determined to avoid his brothers' mistakes. He started slowly, dropping his first tour match to former world No.1 Jim Courier, but posted a solid record in Challenger and Futures events.
By 1999, Srichaphan's growing experience began to pay off: He qualified for four ATP tournaments, reached the second round of Wimbledon and stunned top-20 talent Magnus Norman in Singapore.
The next summer, Srichaphan advanced to the third round of the Legg Mason Classic. The speedy, 6-foot-1 baseliner caught Smeeton's eye and shortly thereafter signed with SFX.
"If you watch Paradorn play, he's a likable guy, a big, good-looking, strong guy," Smeeton said. "He impressed me."
Srichaphan has since impressed the rest of the tour. He opened the season by defeating three top-50 players, including Australian Open champ Thomas Johansson, to reach his first ATP final in Chennai, India.
During the spring hardcourt season, Srichaphan pushed world No.1 Lleyton Hewitt to four match points and twice beat his idol, Michael Chang. He also upset Sebastien Grosjean and Thomas Enqvist, the latter at the French Open. For his efforts, Srichaphan's ranking soared from No.105 in the world to No.67.
Then came Agassi. On the most revered patch of turf in tennis Centre Court at the All England Club Srichaphan authored the upset of the year, defeating the seven-time Grand Slam winner in a straight-sets, second-round shocker. The victory made Srichaphan an instant celebrity in Thailand, where a live broadcast of the match ended at 2 a.m.
"If you had Michael Jordan walking down the street here, that would be Paradorn's standing in Bangkok," said Iggy Jovanovic, an ATP communications director. "He can no longer go to the movies. But that's OK because he loves DVDs."
Following the win, Srichaphan cupped his hands and bowed slightly to fans on both sides of the court, a Thai thank-you gesture he performs after every match. He later received well-wishes from the Thai royal family a huge honor in his native land and a congratulatory phone call from the country's president.
"When he came back from Wimbledon, there were cameras waiting at his house," Jovanovic said.
So far this season, Srichaphan has won $202,839 in prize money, more than half his previous career total. He has endorsement deals with Adidas (shoes) and Yonex (racket).
As he closes in on the highest ranking ever attained by an Asian player No42, held by Japan's Shuzo Matsuoko in the mid-1990s the financial rewards could become even greater.
"As the No.1 Asian, he's representing a huge market," Smeeton said. "We're in the process of trying to link the top companies in Thailand and Asia with him. It makes a lot of sense for Paradorn to be linked with, say, the Bank of Thailand."
Meanwhile, Srichaphan is enjoying the less-lucrative benefits of his budding fame. During his first-round Legg Mason win over Italy's Andrea Gaudenzi, more than a dozen Thai fans gathered in the Grandstand bleachers, waving a large national flag and cheering Srichaphan to a straight-sets victory.
Afterward, Srichaphan recalled his previous stays in Washington, when only the sweltering heat reminded him of home.
"It's cool," he said. "Last year and the year before that, I came here and nobody knows who I am. Who's this guy? Maybe they know this guy is from Thailand. But now, they know that he beat Agassi, had some success. It's a little more detailed."

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