he face might belong to a teen idol on an MTV segment. It's cute and framed by thick tufts of black hair. But the deep Southern California tan and the rugged 5-11 frame tells you that he's more likely to be spotted on ESPN. As a matter of fact Kevin Kim is a tennis player who has recently blasted out of the Challenger Circuit, the professional tennis equivalent of the minor leagues. For seven years Kevin Kim's wins and losses were played out in that untelevised twilight zone among nameless players.
Kim's relatively recent entry into the sunshine of TV coverage and Patrick McEnroe patter is belied by an air of confidence that's more suitable to a legend than a late bloomer. One reason might be that Kim enjoyed the early acclaim of a tennis wunderkind. At one point he was the number one junior player in the U.S. But as soon as he turned pro his ranking plunged into the depths of three-digit mediocrity. He started out 250 in the ATP rankings and managed to work up to number 120 during the seven years before his big break. What finally ended Kim's long run of obscurity was last fall's victory over Spaniard Juan Carlos Ferrero, a top-10 regular.
“I think my parents are a little relieved,” he confides.
Kevin Kim is currently ranked 65th in the world. At the ripe old age of 27 when most stars begin to think about putting away their racquets for good, Kim is just getting started. He has no plans of retiring anytime soon.
“Not until my body gives up,” he insists.
As a teenager no one doubted that Kim would succeed in the world of pro tennis. By the time he turned pro after his first college season at UCLA he had amassed an impressive resume. He was champion of the USTA Boys 18 at Kalamazoo Nationals, had been the top ranked junior in the U.S. in 1996, competed in the U.S. Open at age 16, and during his freshman year, he had been named an All-American at UCLA in both singles and doubles tennis.
But Kim's killer forehand did not ensure success on the pro circuit.
“I turned pro after my first year and then I uh, struggled quite a bit.”
Kevin Kim returns a shot during his match against Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero at the China Open tennis tournament in Beijing Thursday, Sept. 16, 2004. Kim won 6-4, 6-4.
(AP Photo/Greg Baker)
He scratched out a living playing the Challenger circuit in the small towns of middle America. Kim's knack for making it past the exhausting qualifying rounds for entry into the major tournaments earned him the title “King of Challengers.” However, he rarely made it past the first or second rounds. His recent elevation to first-tier tournament play has earned him the privilege of being beaten by some of tennis's biggest marquee names.
Kim's victory over Juan Carlos Ferrero last fall announced his arrival into the sport's major league. In early 2005 USTA provided him with a coach and he now has a sponsor, Lotto Sport, an Italian sport apparel company.
By March 2005 Kevin Kim had played six events and had lost to the likes of the Swede Thomas Johansson (ranked 31), Vince Spadea (21) and Tommy Haas (14). Now his losses get more coverage than all his Challenger Circuit wins.
To date Kim's best performance in the majors was at the 2005 Australian Open, when he beat Hyung-Taik Lee and Guillermo Garcia-Lopez before being knocked out in the third round by Thomas Johansson in a match that went to five sets and was broadcast on ESPN. He credits switching equipment with his rise up the ranks.
“I was really struggling a year ago,” Kim recalls. “I was using Prince. I was with [Filipino American tennis player] Eric Taino at a tournament and he was using Voikl. I said, 'My racquet's terrible. Let me try one of yours.' So I tried it right before a tournament, and I said 'Oh, this is pretty good. Let me use it.' He gave me two and I ended up doing pretty well in the tournament, so I just trashed the other ones.”
Kim was born July 26, 1978 in Torrance California. He has one younger sister. His father introduced him to tennis and golf when he was five. Kevin soon discovered a natural affinity for tennis and eventually dropped golf. He practiced every day, spending as much time on the court as he did studying. He was fortunate to have parents who didn't pressure him to get straight A's. Instead, they encouraged his tennis, especially his father. For two years of high school, they sent him to tennis academy in Florida.
Little has changed from his childood days when Kevin would return home to his mother's home-cooked Corean (Korean) meals. Despite a tennis career on the upswing, Kim still spends much of his free time at his parents' place, enjoying their company and hanging out with friends.
When we caught up with Kevin Kim, he had just returned to L.A. after being knocked out of Wimbledon in a second round match against Taylor Dent (ranked 32).
“I had a few fantasies about playing in big tournaments, but time has flown by. Eight years down the road it kind of all passed by. You go through a lot of ups and downs.”
Goldsea: What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Kevin Kim: In tennis? Results wise? Probably third round in Australian open. It's one of the Grand Slam tournaments.
GS: How do you like playing on grass?
KK: I hate it.
GS: How is it different from hard court?
KK: It's so tough to move and the ball slides on the court. It's just kinda boring. I get bored out there all day.
GS: Because it's slower?
KK: It is a lot slower. The balls are very heavy.
GS: What's the hardest match you've ever played?
KK: Marat Safin. I don't know what rank he is but he's definitely one of the best players I've played.