How Australian ace inspired Katherine Ip to dream big
A match against former great Pat Cash 10 years ago convinced 18-year-old to pursue her dream of becoming a professional player
Katherine Ip Cheng still remembers the day 10 years ago when she walked on to centre court at Victoria Park to face former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash.
"I think that moment defined my life. It inspired me and I knew I wanted to become a professional player," said Ip, 18, one of the key figures in tennis becoming eligible this week to apply for elite status at the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
Despite suffering from the flu, Ip turns up for an interview at Victoria Park's centre court where girls, both local and foreign, are limbering up before play starts in the first of four tournaments in the Chevalier Hong Kong ITF Women's Circuit.
Ip was to play in the singles before the bug hit her, but she was happy to reminisce.
It began when, as an eight-year-old, she was identified as a player with potential and asked to take part in an exhibition hit-out with another Hong Kong player against Cash.
Ip partnered left-hander Ryan Cheung and the pair beat Cash six points to two. Ip was responsible for winning those points and raised the biggest cheer of the day when she caught the Australian napping with a cross-court return.
"I still have a picture of me taken with Pat Cash. I remember that day very well and I think that is what made me want to play tennis. I'm happy I decided to do so," she said.
The Hong Kong Tennis Association will also be grateful she took that step, for Ip won a share of the required points needed by the sport to join the elite academy in Fo Tan and win back millions of dollars of much-needed government support.
"I'm very happy to have played a part in this. I won points as a junior and also as a senior. But since one player can't provide all the points, it was left to Lynn [Zhang Ling] to do the rest and she came through. I'm happy the younger generation can benefit," said Ip, who gave up her studies at Diocesan Girls' School to do an online course so she could concentrate on tennis.
Ip will not benefit when tennis becomes an elite sport - probably in 2015 as the selection process is long and bureaucratic - as she will be at university in the United States on a tennis scholarship.
"I will not be in Hong Kong for the next four or five years, and American collegiate rules preclude anyone from earning money, but I don't mind. There are many talented players in Hong Kong who will gain from this. This is a huge boost for the sport in Hong Kong. We need the money and the facilities and support which the institute can give."
Last week, Ip partnered Zhang to the women's doubles semi-finals at the Asian championships in Bangkok. That result gave the HKTA the remaining points it needed to become an elite sport. But since she had already won points as a junior, and since the rules prevent a double-dip, all hopes were pinned on number one Zhang, who came good.
Tennis lost its privileged position at the Sports Institute in 2008 and has been struggling to get back since. Ip, who was never part of the system - she had a private coach - has represented Hong Kong since she was 11. Last year, for the first time in almost a decade, the HKTA decided to bring back ITF Futures tournaments so up-and-coming youngsters have the opportunity to play at home and earn valuable ranking points. "Bringing back the ITF Futures tournaments was a good move and it certainly helped me," Ip said. "In Hong Kong, children my age don't travel too much to play events like this. The chance to play at home, and against players of a much higher quality is invaluable," Ip said.
In the past week, to give weight to Ip's views, two 16-year-old girls - Suki Law Yik-yan and Nikita Tang Nok-yiu - both won first-round matches in a qualifying draw. They could soon be following in Ip's footsteps.
Ip was born in the United States in 1995. It was a time when there was a great deal of uncertainty in Hong Kong due to the impending handover. Her parents were already living in the US. "My elder brother was born there and when my mum was pregnant with me, they decided to wait until I was born there before returning to Hong Kong, less than a month after I was born."
Ip is now returning to her land of birth, but says she will be back to her true motherland after completing her economics degree at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and hopefully as a better player. "I want to come back as a full-time professional tennis player and represent Hong Kong. I chose to go to Rice simply because I got a full scholarship. I will be playing against girls of a very good standard almost every day and this will help me improve my game. My WTA ranking, which is now around 660-something, will definitely drop as I will not play in any events other than in the NCAA.
"But I'm not worried by that. I know I will improve playing on the collegiate circuit. If I do really well, then I will most certainly give it a go as a full-time professional. If that doesn't work out, then I will return to Hong Kong and decide what I will do."