Futures to serve up way forward for tennis in Hong Kong
Hong Kong Futures tournament next month could revive the city's fortunes in a sport where it has fallen behind the rest of the world
It is aptly named the Hong Kong Futures. Made up of five tournaments - three for men and two for women - the event starts next week at Victoria Park and holds the key to the future, says the Hong Kong Tennis Association. That is, getting tennis back into the Sports Institute under the elite category umbrella, and a revival on the international scene.
For the first time in a decade, Hong Kong will host an International Tennis Federation Futures tournament. It is the lowest rung on both the men's and women's professional circuit: all five events offering only US$10,000 each in prize money. But what cannot be quantified is the experience it will offer local youngsters, who can test their abilities without having to leave home.
Herbert Chow Siu-lung, one of the masterminds behind the move to get ITF Futures tournaments back in town, said: "Playing these tournaments at home will give our youngsters the chance to measure how good they are against their peers from around the world, and to see if taking up the sport full-time is an option."
The winds of change are gusting through the Hong Kong Tennis Association, since a new committee took over last year. Herbert Chow and fellow council member Oscar Chow Vee-tsung believe Hong Kong tennis needs a radical new direction.
Although not related, the Chows share the belief that competition, and not training, should be the bedrock for the renaissance of the sport, which has hit rock bottom in the city.
Hong Kong was relegated to Group Three in the Davis Cup competition this year. The highest-ranked men's players are Andy Lau Chun-hin and Brian Yeung Pak-long, both 1,655 on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rankings. Zhang Ling is ranked 244 in the Women's Tennis Association listings. The sport has been out of the elite training academy at Sha Tin for the past five years and its chances of getting back look remote.
"In recent years, all the emphasis has been on coaching and training. But we don't have the results to prove this is the way to go," said Herbert Chow, who is the chairman of the HKTA's player development committee.
Oscar Chow, chairman of the membership and corporate affairs committee, said: "How long do we have to rely on Yu Hiu-tung [Hong Kong's ageing number one]. Why are we in Group Three of the Davis Cup now?"
These are issues which quite likely played a role in the shift in power, which saw Vincent Liang take over as president of the HKTA from Kenneth Tsui Kam-cheung. That has led to the Hong Kong Futures. The three men's events will be held on successive weeks starting from December 3, while the two women's event will start on December 29 and January 5, featuring a 32-strong main draw and a 32-strong qualifying draw each week.
The tournaments have attracted players in the ATP listings from around the 300 to 400 region. As hosts, Hong Kong will be able to place some of their most promising youngsters directly in the main draw through wild cards. Players such as Lau and Yeung are likely to get wild-card entries in the main draw for the men's events, while Zhang Ling and Venise Chan Wing-yau (ranked 366 in the world) will get into the women's main draw.
Herbert Chow said: "We need to have top-grade junior events in Hong Kong on a regular basis. In the past we have had players like Andy Roddick and Robin Söderling turn up and play in Futures events in Hong Kong. These events will give our kids the chance to see for themselves if they can have a future as a professional player.
"We will start with this low-priced Futures event and hopefully be able to increase the quality of the competition over the next few years. Perhaps in a couple of year's time, we can offer prize money of US$25,000. In Turkey, they have 50 Futures tournaments a year. This is the way to go.
"Just look at the United States. They have put too much money into training and not into tournaments and as a result standards have dropped. Tournaments and competition make professionals, not training."
Herbert Chow once dabbled himself with the idea of becoming a full-time pro. A contemporary of Mark Bailey, one of Hong Kong's most successful Davis Cup players, he soon discovered he was more suited to becoming an entrepreneur (he is now chief executive of Chickeeduck) and gave up tennis. But his heart still belongs to the game.
"The fundamental belief here is that Hong Kong could not produce champions. We left it to chance," he said. "But as we can see, this has been to the detriment of the game. What we have done is to try to create an environment where our players can test themselves, hopefully on a regular basis. If we don't have competition, we will get nowhere."
The last time Hong Kong held a Futures tournament was in 2002. Oscar Chow said: "We believe these events will create better players in Hong Kong. We are trying to model ourselves on countries like Belgium or Switzerland, which have similar populations, and which hold numerous Futures events every year. And see how successful they are?"
Belgium has had players such as Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters while Switzerland, of course, has Roger Federer. Can Hong Kong produce a champion like them? Herbert Chow said: "We have to be thankful for our former president, Kenneth Tsui, for leaving us in a position of financial strength. We have around HK$20 million in the bank and we are financially secure.
"But the difference from the previous council and the present one is how this money should be spent. The old way of thinking was that it should be spent on hiring coaches and on training players. We believe that aspect of the game should be left to the private sector and we, the governing body, should be involved in creating an environment where our players can progress, and that is simply by having more international tournaments here."
The HKTA is also looking at the prospect of bringing back a WTA tournament to Hong Kong. The last time Hong Kong held a ranking event was the Salem Open, an ATP event, in 2002. But the promoters moved the event to Shanghai, and then Beijing.