• Sat
  • Nov 22, 2014
  • Updated: 3:02am

Mr Tennis

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2007, 12:00am
 

The villagers of the tiny French village of Fonsorbes on the outskirts of Toulouse were expecting it to rain on Tuesday. The forecast had been for showers. But in life's many twists, they woke up to a glorious day of sunshine. The irony wouldn't have been lost on Ken Catton.

On the day of his funeral, nature conspired to give Catton, 84, an unexpected sunny farewell. It was payback time for all those days of frustration Catton had to endure in his heyday as the tournament director of Hong Kong's many professional tennis tournaments.

One year, when the Marlboro Tennis Classic was being played in the late-1980s, the rain fell steadily at Victoria Park and no play was possible. With a newspaper needing a picture for the back page of sports, Catton was approached nervously by this writer, who wanted him to pose on centre court with an umbrella.

For a brief moment, I wondered if I had stepped over the bounds of propriety, for it was no laughing matter about the rain which was keeping the players off the court. Remembering, too late, of the courtside chatter which whispered that it would rain whenever Catton organised a tennis match, I felt he would explode.

But Catton was quick to see the funny side of the request, and smilingly obliged to stand for the picture - with the umbrella. That picture caught the mood perfectly.

Catton was ever after affectionately known as the 'Rain Man' in media circles. He took it in his stride, like he did the many obstacles in his path - be it government apathy at repeated requests to build a new stadium at Victoria Park, or the dark days when the Hong Kong Cricket Sixes turned its back on him.

'Ken always had a sharp sense of humour. He was a genuine person,' agreed Ian Wade, the president of the Hong Kong Tennis Patrons Association (TPA), a body which Catton was instrumental in founding back in 1976.

'Thankfully he had lost the knack - of making it rain - in recent years,' smiled Wade, referring to the Women's Challenge tournament held every January which Catton's sons, Terry and Brian, now run for the TPA.

This tournament is the living legacy of Catton - Hong Kong's only remaining high-profile tennis event featuring the world's best players. The heady days of the 1980s and '90s, when Hong Kong boasted of top-class men's professional events, is no more.

Catton was widely acknowledged as the man who brought professional tennis to Hong Kong, and indeed Asia. In 1973, he convinced grand slam legend Rod Laver to come to Hong Kong to take part in a 32-player event which offered prize money of US$25,000.

It was the start of a journey that would benefit Hong Kong fans over the decades as they would get the chance to watch everyone from John Newcombe to Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors to John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras to Roger Federer in action right on their doorstep.

'Every grand slam champion has played in Hong Kong thanks to Ken. He had great connections in the tennis world and was highly regarded. Because of this regard, Hong Kong was able to see the world's best players, both men and women, turning up here,' said Haider Barma, a former TPA president.

'Ken was from the old school where protocol and diplomacy was very important. He made the players feel welcomed. He had the interests of Hong Kong tennis at heart,' Barma added.

At the age of 23, Catton was posted with his regiment to Hong Kong in 1945. Unlike others in his company, the young Catton didn't go back to Essex at the end of the second world war, having decided that he liked this 'barren rock' called Hong Kong.

He landed a job in the Hong Kong Treasury in 1947, and in his spare time, became involved in tennis administration with the Hong Kong Lawn Tennis Association (HKLTA), of which he was elected president in 1971. He held the position for the next five years - when significant and long-lasting changes were made. The association launched a programme of development, and in 1972 held its first major professional tournament at Victoria Park, then a barren facility with only five courts where they had to erect bamboo stands to provide seating for 1,000 spectators. Among the players who turned up was the great Pancho Gonzales and Frank Sedgman.

The following year, Catton led a delegation of Asian countries to Wimbledon in a bid to set up an Asian tennis circuit as part of the worldwide Grand Prix series. They were successful and Hong Kong became one of the legs that included stops in Sydney, Jakarta, Manila, Tokyo and Mumbai.

'We couldn't find anyone to co-ordinate it and in the end the Men's Tennis Council [forerunner of the ATP] said I could do it,' Catton recalled in a previous interview.

That was the beginning of a fully fledged professional tennis circuit in Asia.

'It was Ken who first began working with our late founder Mark McCormack over 30 years ago. The traditions that Ken held so dear - exceptional integrity, high business standards and class will be sorely missed,' said Fernando Soler, the head of IMG Tennis Worldwide.

'Ken was the father of professional tennis in Hong Kong and in Asia. Hong Kong owes him a great debt of gratitude,' said Ed Hardisty, who became secretary of the HKLTA in 1975, and is currently an ATP supervisor.

The 1973 tournament provided Catton his first taste as a tournament director. He succeeded in getting Laver, Charlie Pasarell and Brian Gottfried. 'It was not easy inviting Laver and even in those days we had to pay him an appearance fee that was relative to what the top players earn nowadays,' Catton pointed out recently.

The following year brought names like Newcombe, Rosewall and Roscoe Tanner to Hong Kong. Hardisty recounts: 'There was a terrible typhoon in 1974 and there was no play from the quarter-finals. The tournament was washed out.'

A five-hour meeting at the Excelsior Hotel between the sponsors, Catton and the players ended in the prize money, US$50,000, being split between the players. The tournament lost its sponsor and Hong Kong tennis faced an uncertain future.

Realising that he needed the support of the local business community, Catton approached a number of people with an interest in tennis and so the TPA was born. One of the first problems they faced was the lack of a permanent stand at Victoria Park. Catton lobbied for a permanent venue. The Urban Council obliged and, by 1982, Hong Kong had a modern facility that could seat 4,000.

Coinciding with the construction of the stadium was the signing of a new sponsor - Seiko. So began an eight-year relationship in 1980. Having overcome one hurdle, Catton and the TPA were faced with another, bigger issue - the tournament living on a financial knife-edge.

The problem was that Hong Kong did not qualify to have the top-10 players in the world. And with Hong Kong's demanding fans wanting big-name players, attendance figures were low.

Catton made seven consecutive annual applications to the Men's Tennis Council to get Hong Kong upgraded. Each one failed because Hong Kong did not have the clout of a major tennis nation like Japan. As a result Seiko pulled out in 1987.

'We were not getting the top players. So Hong Kong decided to pull out and form an exhibition event,' Hardisty recollects.

Luckily for the TPA and Catton, Philip Morris was waiting in the wings to assume the role of title sponsor. A new era of professional tennis was born in Hong Kong. The next 10 years were the most profitable for the TPA, which by 1997 had donated almost HK$16 million to the Hong Kong Tennis Foundation for the development of local talent.

But disappointments were in store. The government's ban on tobacco sponsorship saw Marlboro end its involvement, resulting in the tournament ending.

'It has been an uphill struggle,' Catton told this newspaper in 2002. By then he had retired, leaving the company he had formed - Ken Catton Enterprises - in the hands of his sons Brian and Terry.

'Although he retired and went to live in France, he was still involved and would always return to Hong Kong for the Women's Challenge tournament in January,' said Terry.

Although Catton could not speak French, he was quick to make friends with his new neighbours in Fonsorbes. They turned out in their numbers on Tuesday to bid farewell to him.

'He was known as the 'Mad Englishman' for he would be seen walking in the hot sun without a hat and with his red nose. Although he couldn't speak French, he communicated by body language and everyone knew him. They all became close friends despite the language barrier,' Brian said.

Terry adds: 'We were stunned by the outpouring of grief shown by his neighbours.'

Despite the overnight forecast, it didn't rain in Fonsorbes on Tuesday. But it rained in the hearts of those gathered for the funeral. Ken Catton would have smiled at that.

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