Despite two world champions, it’s a nervous time for Hong Kong snooker
Teenager Cheung Ka-wai could join Marco Fu Ka-chun in the pro ranks this week, but the game still faces an uncertain future at the Sports Institute
There aren’t many sports in which Hong Kong has a world champion, let alone two. But despite a tremendously successful 2015, local snooker faces a battle to remain in the Hong Kong Sports Institute.
This week 16-year-old Cheung “Kobe” Ka-wai gets the chance to join Marco Fu Ka-chun in the professional ranks. He was crowned under-18 world champion in December last year, following Ng On-yee’s landmark win in the women’s world championships in April.
But HKSI head billiard sports coach Wayne Griffiths – the son of former pro Terry – admits it’s a nervous time for everyone involved in the sport.
Though snooker recorded a maximum possible 12.5 points in 2015 under the HKSI’s ranking system and is secure as an elite sport until 2019, because it is not in the Olympics and has been dropped by the Asian Games for two consecutive editions (Incheon 2014 and Jakarta 2018), it could be downgraded when the HKSI meets after the Rio Olympics to designate elite sports for the next four-year cycle (2017-2021).
“Even though we’re one of strongest in terms of results we’re still not guaranteed to be staying in,” says Wales’ Griffiths, who has been coaching in Hong Kong for five-and-a-half years. “The players are concentrating on getting good results but maybe the politics, the rules whether we can stay in the Institute, is a key area for us.”
As snooker is not in the Olympics, it is not automatically included in the Asian Games. Hosts can pick several non-Olympic sports, but Indonesia isn’t much interested in snooker (they did pick bridge for 2018).
For now, Griffiths and his squad are focused on a big few months. This week, Cheung and three teammates head to Sri Lanka for the Asian Under-21 Championships, with a two-year ticket to the professional ranks on offer to the winner. Ng then defends her women’s world title at the end of March and will take on the men in the qualifiers for their world championships.
Cheung dominated the U18 Worlds in St Petersburg, Russia, before beating Hong Kong teammate Chan Ming-tung in the final. His promise has seen him tagged “the next Marco Fu” by the Chinese media and though that might be jumping the gun, Griffiths says he and his teammates will be full of confidence in Colombo.
“We were going to St Petersburg really hoping to give a good show for ourselves, but having two boys in the final was pretty special,” he said. “As a result of all his hard work and talent I think [Cheung will] be somebody who goes on to deliver strong results for Hong Kong for a long time.”
Cheung, from Ma On Shan, was introduced to the game by On-yee’s father Ng Yam-shui at his 147 Club in Sheung Wan, a story shared by several of Hong Kong’s young players. As for his chances of emulating Fu?
“Ultimately all our juniors will see that as the ultimate goal, to become a professional and follow in Marco’s footsteps,” says Griffiths. “That’s definitely his goal.
“It’s a huge prize [in Colombo]. The pro ticket is the golden ticket, the dream ticket for these young players.”
Cheung will be joined in Sri Lanka by Tam, Man Ming-wah and Leung Man-hoi.
“Our boys are pretty experienced at this level,” Griffiths adds. “We’ve had these boys since they were 11 or 12 and they’ve been our best players since then, so every year they’ve been going to the Asian or World Under-21s. They started eight or nine years younger than the rest, now they’re four years younger so they have a lot of experience, but it will be tough.
“There’s a lot of good players from China, Thailand, India, but as the world Under-18 champion [Cheung] doesn’t lack confidence and he’ll go there like the other three boys will and give it his best.”
Cheung receives around HK$3,000 a month in financial support as a HKSI junior athlete (it may rise to HK$7,000 after his world title) and, under a partnership the Institute has with several ESF schools and Lam Ka Fai College in Ma On Shan, he also studies four days a week at the latter institution. It gives the lie to the notion that kids never amount to anything by hanging around smoky snooker halls.
“There’s no doubt our sport is fighting a long history of bad image some of it fair, some it unfair,” says Griffiths. “Obviously, if we can bring parents here [to the Sports Institute] and show them the professional environment, the set-up, the structures that we’re following, the grants that are available, the education support ...
“Hopefully, the future with Marco doing well and On-yee and Cheung Ka-wai, it will attract other young players to join because we certainly need that.”
But it could all vanish if snooker does not remain a HKSI elite sport.
“We had [a similar situation] a few years ago and it hung over us until the last minute,” says Griffiths. “For players, that’s not great, and for us trying to attract talent we have to be honest and say we’re not 100 per cent sure where we will be after 2019.
“It’s not ideal when trying to attract players and keep them in the game, but it’s not within our control I’m afraid. As players and coaches all we can do is keep working hard, keep delivering the best results for Hong Kong and hopefully the rest will take care of itself.”