Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Don't look now, but an Asian player (yes, an Asian player) is rapidly ascending the men's tennis ladder. Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan closed out 2002 at No. 16 in the world rankings and No. 18 in the ATP Champions Race and will likely continue to climb in 2003.
The blossoming star posted a series of big wins this past season, but none was bigger than his shocking upset of the great Andre Agassi in the second round of Wimbledon. The stunning victory got everyone's attention, and the Thai would prove that it was no fluke by continuing to play brilliant tennis over the ensuing months.
Srichaphan (pronounced SREE-sha-pan) piled up 49 match wins in '02, including a stellar 29-11 record after Wimbledon. Along the way, he appeared in four finals and captured events on Long Island and in Stockholm -- marking the first two titles of his career. He capped his breakthrough campaign by winning 9-of-10 and 14-of-18 matches, and landed in at least the quarterfinals in his last four tournaments (quarterfinal in Madrid; semifinals in Tokyo and Paris; title in Sweden).
Srichaphan piled up 49 match wins in 2002, including a stellar 29-11 record after Wimbledon.
The 23-year-old Bangkok native finished an unthreatening 112th in the 2001 Champions Race, and entered 2002 with an unimpressive 31-42 career singles mark. But a 49-25 campaign will put you on the map, especially when you're picking up dazzling wins against the likes of Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, Marat Safin, Marcelo Rios, Gustavo Kuerten, Tim Henman, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Andy Roddick. That who's who of tennis list includes four men who have held the No. 1 ranking and a quartet of Grand Slam event winners.
Srichaphan, who turned pro in 1997, practically tripled his career earnings this year, as he entered with $394,638 in winnings and exited with $1,049,417 after claiming $651,089 in a 10-month span.
The rising Thai went 5-4 at the "majors," including a pair of 2-1 showings at the French Open and Wimbledon. Former champion Richard Krajicek ended Srichaphan's mini-run at Wimbledon by blowing him away in straight sets, this following his straight-sets shocker over the former champion Agassi.
Srichaphan's season officially came to an end in the first week of November when Hewitt exacted some revenge with a hard-fought victory over the Thai in the semifinals of the prestigious Paris Masters. Srichaphan, however, had an outstanding week in Paris, as he notched big victories over close friend Jan- Michael Gambill, Ferrero, Guillermo Canas and Roddick before falling to the Wimbledon champion Hewitt, whom the Thai ousted in a quarterfinal encounter in Tokyo in October.
The high-flying Srichaphan had rattled off nine straight match wins before losing to Hewitt in Paris.
Amid all his recent success, Srichaphan has had to face some adversity, as critics have pressured him to replace his father, Chanachai, as coach; and there had been talk of him facing a career crisis due to his possible draft into the Thai military.
In October, Srichaphan was advised to dump his dad in favor of a "world-class" coach if he wished to break into the top 10.
Paradorn's father has been his coach since he was seven years old, but Thai critics believe Chanachai should step down in order for the up-and-comer to reach that proverbial "next level."
Chanachai gave up a bank job to dedicate most of his adult life to coaching Paradorn and his two older brothers, who were top national players.
In September, Paradorn said he had no intention of firing his father. "Our combination has worked well so far. He is a great coach, a great father, a great friend."
And just last month, it was reported that Paradorn's career could be put on hold if he was required to serve in his country's armed forces next year.
But the respected athlete was granted an exemption because of the honor he has brought his country. Had King Bhumibol Adulyadej not granted the exemption, Srichaphan would have been forced to report for boot camp on April 7.
The point is moot.
Paradorn, he of the powerful groundstrokes and capable serve, has become a sensation in Thailand, going from relative obscurity to the top player in Asia. That's what victories over Agassi and Hewitt will do for you in that neck of the woods.
The Thai government rewarded him with a diplomatic passport, and the national Thai Airways gave him 3 million free air miles. Residents of his hometown, Khon Kaen, presented him with a gold racket.
Needless to say, big things are expected from Srichaphan at next month's Australian Open, which is staged on his favorite surface, hardcourt.