Game, set, match Thailand, thanks to local 'Becker'
Businesses hope that Paradorn's success will do for Thai tennis what Boris Becker did for the sport in Germany

Singapore Straits Times
By Edward Tang

BANGKOK - Tennis is set to boom in Thailand. Sales of racquets, balls and tennis wear have shot up in recent months, thanks largely to home-grown Paradorn Srichaphan's sensational performances this year.

Public tennis courts in Bangkok report a surge in bookings while tennis instructors are said to be in demand.

More people, from young children to middle-aged executives, have taken up the game. Until now, tennis has never broken the dominance of football and boxing, the most popular sports here.

The huge interest is generated by Paradorn, 23, whose victories this year included the recent Stockholm Open and wins over top-ranked players such as world number one Lleyton Hewitt.

He has climbed over 100 places in the world rankings to sit at 16th, equalling the record set by the last Asian player more than a decade ago.

He has been showered with gifts and praises. Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called him the 'son every parent wishes to have'.

He also presented Paradorn with a diplomatic passport and named him a cultural ambassador of Thailand.

Overnight, every young Thai boy wants to be like him.

'I want to be the new Paradorn,' said a second-grader, who formerly idolised British footballer David Beckham.

Not since Thai boxers set the country ablaze with Olympic glory a few years ago has another sport here experienced such a major boost.

Many interested parties hope that Paradorn's achievements could do for Thai tennis what Boris Becker, who won the Wimbledon title at 16, did for Germany.

Tennis court construction companies expect business to pick up as there are fewer than 200 courts in Bangkok, which has 10 million people.

Currently, most of the tennis facilities are out of reach to many Thais because they are located mainly in hotels and private clubs, The Straits Times was told.

'We need to build more public courts to sustain the interest,' said Ms Jintana Youngkuekool of Sports Engineering and Recreation Asia, whose company has constructed about 30 courts this year, mostly for universities and private sport clubs.

High land prices and the construction cost of about one million baht (S$41,000) for each hard court are believed to have discouraged many potential operators.

But that mindset could change with more spectacular performances by Paradorn and rising stars such as Tamarine Tanasugarn, who is making a name on the women's circuit.

The attractive prize money can also spur interest. Big companies such as Unocal, Mercedes Benz and Beer Chang are major sponsors of local tennis tournaments.

Unlike golf, another popular individual sport in Thailand, tennis is more affordable and has potentially wider appeal.