Hong Kong tennis seeks inspiration from former top players as it builds for the future

Former Davis Cup player Mike Walker is back as player development director as HKTA appoints ex-players Yu Hiu-tung and Yan Zi to captain Davis and Fed Cup teams

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 11:45am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2016, 5:18pm

Hong Kong tennis is looking back to go forward – appointing former Davis Cup player Mike Walker to guide talent at all levels and looking to benefit from the experience of ex-players Yu Hiu-tung and Yan Zi.

Walker was part of Hong Kong’s most successful Davis Cup team in the 1990s, when they made it to Group One of the Asia/Oceania Zone. Having returned to Hong Kong this year as director of player development after more than 20 years away, one of his first moves was to get the local pair on board as captains for the Davis and Fed Cup teams respectively.

Hong Kong are currently in Davis Cup Group Three and Fed Cup Group Two but Walker is confident both the men’s and women’s teams can win promotion this year.

“We’re working on that now with Yan Zi for Fed Cup and Yu for the Davis,” says the 49-year-old Briton, who came to Hong Kong to coach at the Jubilee Sports Centre (the forerunner to the Hong Kong Sports Institute) in 1988 and played Davis Cup from ’91 to ’94.

“Hopefully what both can do is pass on their knowledge – they’ve both played the game to a very high level and are tactically very good. With the talent and base we’ve got here we can get out and win Group Three and Group Two.

“It’s exciting to get them involved not just in Davis and Fed, but also spending time and working with our juniors as well.”

Sichuan-born Yan played at the highest level of the Fed Cup with China. She was one of the country’s most successful players before Li Na’s emergence, winning both the Wimbledon and Australian Open doubles titles.

When you decide [in China] tennis is your job, you don’t go to school, it’s practice the whole day
Yan Zi

Having battled through China’s ruthless state-run tennis system from childhood, she’s well placed to teach Hong Kong’s hopefuls a thing or two about the dedication required to make it in a sport that is still seen by many in the city as a pastime for the pampered.

“It’s very exciting for me, it’s the first time for me in the Fed Cup as captain and not player and I’m looking forward to work with the girls,” said the 31-year-old.

READ MORE: Yan Zi comes out of retirement to help organise Hong Kong Tennis Open

“I hope I can help them to give some my experience because in Hong Kong not so many players play professional.

“In Sichuan I started playing tennis around five, went to the provincial team about 13 then the national team ... [it’s] not like here, where they’ll go most of the time to school then after school come [practice]. When you decide [in China] tennis is your job, you don’t go to school, it’s practice the whole day.”

WATCH: Yan Zi looks back on her career before last year’s Hong Kong Open

Yan, 31, said the relentless pressure to make the grade in the mainland system had toughened her up – suggesting she’d try to instil some of that into her Fed Cup team. Her first match as captain is in Thailand next month, where HK will battle the likes of Bahrain, Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, and eight other nations not exactly famed as tennis strongholds for the one promotion place at stake.

Last year, Hong Kong lost a relegation play-off to Taiwan, who have since won Group One, showing what a difference 12 months can make.

READ MORE: Hong Kong No.1 Lynn Zhang Ling on the daily grind of a low-level pro

“I think the pressure [has been] good for my life because [having always been] doing that, now if I need to make a choice or am under some pressure, I feel it is easy. It’s never that I can’t do or won’t do something because of pressure or stress.

“Hong Kong players have a lot of good things around them, so they don’t feel so much pressure around them [to succeed] when they’re young, I think it’s better to give them more.”

Yu played Davis Cup for HK from 2002 to 2012, having been spotted by Walker as a child when he was coaching at the Tennis Association. Last month he received a special ‘Davis Cup Commitment Award’ from the ITF given to players who’ve played 20 or more ties.

In last year’s competition, Hong Kong fielded a team with an average age of 16 including highly-rated local No.1 Jack Wong Hong-kit (17) as they lost in the promotion playoff; Yu said he’d likely do the same again to try to build on a promising foundation of talented youngsters.

“They are the future for Hong Kong tennis so we hope we can keep giving them more experience so when they get a bit older they get more results,” said Yu, 32.

“I know how the players will feel on court when they are playing Davis Cup – it’s different from normal tournaments, it’s a team event and you’re playing for your country, so maybe you get a bit more nervous.

“So I hope I can understand how they feel and give them some advice on court.”

Wong is a full-time athlete at the Hong Kong Sports Institute – tennis returned as an elite sport last year after a long absence. That support could be invaluable as the sport seeks to make strides.

“We’ve always [had] some good talented juniors ... the problem is the lack of support so that’s why they choose to go abroad and study more than play full-time,” added Yu. “Hopefully we can start doing a bit more to let them play full-time.

“[With the HKSI support there’s] much more funding, players get more chance to travel, play tournaments and also get some more good coaches. So hopefully we can get some more good results.”

Walker, who coached for the Lawn Tennis Association in England after leaving Hong Kong, says he’s been impressed with what he’s seen on his return.

“I’m still in an observational period, but I think the foundation is very good,” he said. “When I was last here in the early 90s we had some good success particularly in the Davis Cup, but I think the foundation is much stronger, with much more players playing, and many more coaches ... the foundation is there to build upon.

“It’s fantastic to be back in the Sports Institute, I grew up here as a coach and Davis Cup player where it was a focus sport. It can only be a good thing working very closely with the SI and Amine [Boustani], the head coach here.

“There’s a really good base and [the Davis and Fed Cup teams] can only gain from their experiences last year – and that will put us on a real good footing to hopefully win.”