Why Kwon's Match Against Nadal Has Been A Long Time Coming
This time last year, Soonwoo Kwon had never played in an ATP Tour main draw. But the South Korean has now reached four tour-level quarter-finals in consecutive weeks. On Thursday evening, he will face World No. 2 Rafael Nadal in the last eight of the Abierto Mexicano Telcel presentado por HSBC. The 22-year-old idolises Nadal and Roger Federer, and one of his early goals was to compete in the same events as them.
“I’m really close to playing in the same tournaments as them, so I’m really preparing for that,” Kwon told ATPTour.com last year.
Now, he will try to upset two-time champion Nadal in Acapulco.
Editor's note: Learn more about Kwon, his mindset and his early journey on the ATP Tour in a story written during the New York Open, originally published on 13 February 2020.
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“I had experience against Khachanov and good players, so I was a little bit nervous,” Kwon said about facing Raonic. “But I got many experiences from last year and this year, so it was good. I’m really happy for that.”
Little did the Long Island crowd know how much it took — literally and figuratively — to get there.
First, the literal: Kwon lost last Friday in the quarter-finals of the Tata Open Maharashtra more than 12,000 kilometres away. It took the 22-year-old 30 hours to make the journey to New York via Seoul, South Korea.
“I keep thinking positive. I’m still young, so the time difference doesn’t matter, 30 hours flight,” Kwon said, cracking a laugh. “Yesterday I played a little bit tired against [Go] Soeda, but finally I won, which gave me more confidence.”
Kwon was in control of his first-round match against Soeda, leading by a set and a break. But he remained calm, and triumphed in a deciding set against the Japanese. Kwon also had an opportunity to close out Raonic in straight sets. Once again, instead of getting overly frustrated, he reset, maintained his composure and ousted the second seed.
“Two years ago he always rushed and and easily got angry on court,” said Kyu Tae Im, Kwon’s coach. “But I didn't push him that much. I was just trying to listen to him about it, then gave him time to change his mind.”
Raonic crushed 33 aces from 96 service points. So more than one third of the Canadian’s service points resulted in a ball whizzing by the South Korean.
“Before the match we made plan for when he returns, because he has a really good serve,” Im said. “Doesn’t matter [if he hits] 30 aces, 40 aces.”
Im, who watched how Djokovic played Raonic at the Australian Open, wanted Kwon to stick to the game plan: make a lot of his first serves and to work the point from the baseline to try to tire out Raonic so that the Canadian would make fewer first serves. This way, the longer the match went on, the better Kwon’s chances to work his way into return points. Then, he would methodically use his forehand to earn a short ball and move into net to finish off points.
“Kwon is a really smart boy. When we make a plan before the match, he uses all of things during the match. Win or lose, it doesn't matter,” Im said. “I think this shows big trust in each other.”
One year ago, Kwon was No. 235 in the FedEx ATP Rankings. The first week of March, he won his first ATP Challenger Tour title in Yokohama, Japan. Then he began working with Im, and he has been on the rise ever since. Kwon has earned his first eight ATP Tour wins in the past seven months, defeating the likes of former Top 10 players Richard Gasquet and Lucas Pouille.
Kwon has also pushed seeded players Karen Khachanov and Nikoloz Basilashvili at last year’s Wimbledon and this year’s Australian Open, respectively. So although he didn’t break through in those moments, he was increasingly gaining confidence.
“He had a good talent and potential, but nobody else gave confidence to him,” Im said of when they started their relationship. “They just spoke to him about his weak points. For me, I tried to keep talking with him about his tennis and how he has good groundstrokes, especially being aggressive his forehand. So I tried to, in practice, use his forehand a lot, and also mentally for him to keep staying calm, too.
“When he practises on the tennis court he is always trying to focus on his exercise and using all his energy on court. I think that is his biggest weapon.”
The World No. 84 is putting himself in winning positions. And with confidence, a strong baseline game and a willingness to move forward, Kwon is finding ways to take advantage of those situations.
“It wasn’t that I played poorly,” Raonic said. “I thought he played really well.”
Kwon is into his third ATP Tour quarter-final, and his upset of Raonic gives him an opportunity to face eighth seed Kyle Edmund for a spot in his first tour-level semi-final.