THE BUZZ

Friday, 17 February 2017 04:14

King is Barbados' newest sensation

As he walked through the door at Graceland, past the wall of more than 100 gold, platinum and multi-platinum records and let the kitschy magnificence of the Jungle Room wash over him, Darian King could not stop smiling.

 

The private jets -- Lisa Marie and Hound Dog II -- were the most impressive, he said Wednesday after emerging from the home of the late Elvis Presley.

 

"Visiting a legend like Mr. Presley," King said, laughing, "it was great for me."

 

It was the King in the presence of The King, a matchup the ATP World Tour publicists could not resist for a photo shoot. While he has an unlikely backstory, King suddenly has this ludicrous front-story: Tuesday, the engaging 24-year-old made history, becoming the first man from Barbados to win a match at the ATP level.

 

His emphatic straight-sets victory over Bernard Tomic at the Memphis Open prompted a nice feature in the local newspaper, but back in Barbados they celebrated.

 

It's a tiny island, some 167 square miles, just east of the long volcanic island arc that includes Greneda, Dominica and St. Lucia in the Caribbean. The population hovers around 280,000, or about half the citizenry of Wyoming, our least populous state. Like Wyoming, Barbados is hardly a hotbed of tennis. Rihanna, the celebrated 28-year-old singer songwriter, is the country's most notable export, followed by Obadele Thompson, who won the bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics in the men's 100 meters.

 

You can now add Darian King to that short list.

 

"I'm not Rihanna," King acknowledged, "but it was thrilling," said in his first interview with a U.S. national outlet. "I'm really stoked. For me, it is a great achievement."

 

Tomic, ranked No. 32 among ATP players, was a formidable victory. After winning two qualifying matches, the 140th-ranked King played the match of his life on The Racquet Club's stadium court, taking each of his 10 service games (never facing a break point) and playing terrific defense. And when Tomic's last backhand fell long, King -- who said he collected himself for the moment -- tried not to show too much emotion.

 

Naturally, this overnight sensation was some 16 years in the making.

 

King, then 8, and his brother Christopher, 10, were students at the Wilkie Cumberbatch primary school in the capital of Bridgetown when the P.E. teacher came looking for volunteers. They were soccer players, having never held a racket, but the Ocean View Tennis Club needed a few bodies for a junior competition.

 

Darian, once they explained the rules, won the tournament and the brothers eventually received a sponsorship to train with other promising juniors under coach Sydney Lopez. Later, former professional Martin Blackman, also a native of Barbados, would take an interest in King. Today, Blackman is the USTA's general manager of player development.

 

While some juniors enjoy great support and have the leverage to accept wild cards into events, King did not have that luxury. He struggled for years, playing Futures events (he's won 13 titles) and, eventually, Challengers, the AAA of tennis. His ranking, No. 1,579 at the end of 2010, has improved incrementally over the past seven years. Thanks to 2016 Challenger wins in Cali-Colombia, Binghamton, New York and Tiburon, California, King found himself at No. 152 at the end of last year.

 

The key breakthrough was the final in Cali last July, when he beat Victor Estrella Burgos, a former top-50 player.

 

"I started believing I could hang with these guys and actually beat them," King said. "I was playing well the entire tournament and winning it finally portrayed that belief inside of me."

 

The win over Tomic came 18 months after his only previous ATP match, at Washington D.C.'s Citi Open, when he qualified and lost to Go Soeda of Japan.

 

Although his mother died five years ago, King's father, Wesley, follows his career from Barbados. And Darian's brother, Christopher, the would-be soccer player? For the past two years, he's been King's traveling coach.

 

"It makes all the difference," Darian said. "For four, five years, I was always by myself, looking for cheap hotels and eating two meals a day to save money. Having him with me has been really important."

 

Barbados is a tourist destination and, according to King, typical of other laid-back Caribbean nations.

 

"In Barbados, it's always about relaxing, chilling," he said. "The discipline is not that great. But we had a mantra at home that you can't have success without hard work. My mentality changed pretty quickly when I realized I could play with these guys."

 

Today he's getting support from Creative Artists Agency, Flow Barbados, a telecommunications company, and the Barbados Olympic Association, for whom he became the first Olympic tennis player last summer in Rio de Janeiro.

 

King, who will turn 25 in April, is well below the scintillating teenage talents like Alexander Zverev or even Frances Tiafoe, Taylor Fritz or Reilly Opelka, Americans who are also in the Memphis draw. Still, King knows where he came from and, he said, where he's going.

 

"Things haven't come easy for me," King said. "But now I've done some things for my little country -- qualifying for an ATP 250, having a winning record in Davis Cup. I have friends who are looking up to me as an idol, people who hope I can put Barbados on the map."

 

His newest goal is to be in the top 100 and qualify into the main draws of all the Slams and, maybe, win a couple of rounds. He will try to qualify for upcoming tournaments in Delray Beach, Florida, Acapulco, Mexico, Indian Wells, California, and Miami, Florida.

 

Thursday in Memphis he'll play Mikhail Kukushkin, a 29-year-old journeyman from Kazakhstan for a berth in the quarterfinals. And a chance for more history.

 

King is eventually hoping to get somewhere close to No. 50 and, at the end of the day, make a good living for his family.

 

"I want to be an example for Caribbean kids, of what it takes for success," King said. "If you keep focused and stay on the right path, anything can happen.

 

"Look, it happened to me."

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