In his 25 years of coaching on the professional tennis circuit, Oliver Messerli had never felt so hopeless. His player, Jason Jung of Torrance, was up two sets, 4-1 and 30-0 serving in the first round of the recent US Open, the first time Jung was playing in the main draw of the American Grand Slam.
The 31-year-old Jung suddenly felt his fingers start to cramp up, and then his arms, and finally his legs. After dropping the third set 6-4, and the fourth set 6-1 against Federico Coria of Argentina, Jung decided he could go on no longer and retired down 2-0 in the fifth set.
“The training he did during COVID was so efficient,” said Messerli, the Director of Tennis at Peninsula Racquet Club in Palos Verdes, who spent the entire three weeks in the US Open “bubble” with Jung. “He is the fittest he’s ever been. And there was no humidity. Really, what it came down to was all emotional. His body didn’t respond. And I couldn’t do anything about it. I would have picked him up and helped him if I could.”
Messerli said during the COVID shutdown, Jung improved his lung capacity. But no amount of training could prevent the cramping. “He can go longer now and we worked on his breathing,” he said. “These tiny little details can make a big difference in getting to the next level.”
While the Open experience and watching Jung walk off the courts last month was heartbreaking, Messerli is still elated to be in Jung’s corner and working with the 31-year-old Torrance native like he has done for the past five years.
This past week, Jung entered the French Open bubble near Paris and won two qualifying matches for this year’s clay court Grand Slam, finally falling to Australian Aleksander Vukic, 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, in the final round of qualifying. The No. 15 seed. Jung had looked impressive in his first two rounds of qualifying beating Yosuke Watanuki from Japan, 6-2, 6-0, and then former world Top-5 player Tommy Robredo from Spain, 6-3, 6-4.
But the tennis Gods smiled down on Jung Friday when it was revealed during the French Open main draw ceremony that Jung had been granted a spot in the draw as a lucky loser. In an unusual twist of fate, Jung will once again meet the player he was forced to default to at the US Open Coria in the first round next week.
The Messerli/Jung partnership was a natural fit as the two South African native Messerli and the former University of Michigan star Jung first met through friend Allen Yap, who runs a league in the South Bay with some of SoCal’s top players.
“Allen started the league on Wednesday nights and we get guys like Peter Smith, his boys, Austin Rapp and Jeff Tarango,” said Messerli, who coached Lisa Raymond and Rene Stubbs to the world No.-1 ranking in 2000, and has worked with other WTA players like Mary Peirce and Nicole Pratt. “Allen has mentioned to me that Jason was having some struggles and asked if I would possibly help him out. We did a month-long trial and started working together.”
Jung’s world ranking was hovering in the 350 to 400 range as he continued the Pro Circuit grind he had started after leaving Michigan in his early 20s. “We got him down to 250 pretty quickly and the last two years we got him to between 140 and 125,” said Messerli, who averages between 10 and 15 weeks a year on the road with Jung each year. “The big threshold is really 105 so you can get into the main draw of the Grand Slams and start to make a good living.”
While Jung’s physical side has changed since joining forces with Messerli, it’s his mental state and belief in himself that has translated to climbing up the rankings ladder. “Just having the confidence out there and that he has the belief that he can go out and compete with these guys and battle with them was the biggest thing. That this is all happening at 31 and not 27 or 28 is fine. It’s his journey and his process.
“It’s just a matter of him staying the course. I really believe in this kid, and he knows it.”
Messerli will travel to Milan in two weeks to join Jung for two or three Challengers before the two shut it down for the year and begin the off-season training at home in the South Bay before entering yet another Grand Slam bubble in Australia to start the year.
“I’m so happy to be on this journey with him,” Messerli said. “I have a 17-year-old and an 11-year-old, but Jason’s like a son to me and when we travel we have that type of respect for one another. There’s never, ever been a negative word spoken to one another. There is that respect and he knows I’m going to do what’s best for him.”