Living the dream: coach says Hong Kong’s girls tennis team can become pros after stunning march to World Junior Finals
Cody Wong, Jenny Wong and Lin Wing-ka beat top three seeds in winning Asia/Oceania qualifying tournament
Cody Wong Hong-yi, Jenny Wong Hoi-ki and Lin Wing-ka were nerveless in Thailand last week as they delivered perhaps the most impressive result ever for Hong Kong junior tennis. Getting interviewed by the press is much more scary.
“Facing the media makes us much more nervous than being on the court,” says Cody, as the girls devolve into fits of giggles at the Hong Kong Tennis Association’s training facility in Kowloon Tsai Sports Ground.
The 14-year-olds beat the top three seeds, Australia, South Korea and Japan, on their way to winning the World Junior Tennis Asia/Oceania qualifying tournament. They’ll be up against the 15 best teams in the world at the finals in Prostejov, Czech Republic, in August – the first time a Hong Kong girls’ team has qualified. Getting back in action will be a welcome relief after they returned to Hong Kong to find themselves in demand from TV and press.
But they might have to get used to that attention: their coach Leo Liu Jin Jian says they could all have full-time careers on the WTA circuit if they continue their impressive progression.
“Confidence is gained based on match experience and this is a really huge boost to their confidence,” says the 38-year-old Jiangsu native, who has been coaching kids at the HKTA for 13 years. “Even though they are 14 they can start to think about in the future to compete in the WTA and have a full-time career.
“What they have shown at this age proves that they can go further and achieve,” adds the former China Davis Cup player.
The Wongs are not related, but both are pupils at Diocesan Girls’ School in Jordan, where they sit next to each other in many classes – “she’s always distracting me,” jokes Jenny. Lin studies at Jockey Club Ti-I College in Sha Tin, and is a relative latecomer to the sport, having started at seven compared to Cody (three) and Jenny (four).
WATCH: Hong Kong’s young stars talk to the SCMP
The trio trounced Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan 3-0 in the group stage in Bangkok before a 2-1 defeat to top seeds Japan meant they had to beat third seeds Australia to reach the semi-finals and book a place at the main event.
That match came down to the doubles and the Wongs coolly dispatched their opponents in straight sets. Second seeds South Korea were overcome in the semis, doubles key again, and it was the same story in the final as HK got revenge over Japan.
Cody only dropped one set in winning all six of her singles matches. It still rankles.
“The most tiring match was in the semi-final against South Korea. I was off-form and dropped my first set. After that my coach helped adjust my mindset and then I played better,” she says.
“The most memorable match was the quarter-final against Australia. If we lost, we would miss the World Final. The Australian pair was strong but Jenny and I showed good teamwork and played well to eventually win.”
Cody has been clocking up the air miles: she was part of the HK Under-16 team that competed in Junior Fed Cup regional qualifying in Sri Lanka two weeks previously, while she and Jenny were also in action in Vietnam in March.
Older brother Jack Wong Hong-kit is a full-time elite athlete at the Hong Kong Sports Institute, having given up school to pursue his dream; he and fellow 17-year-old Jackie Tang are currently pushing each other hard to break into the top 100 on the junior world rankings.
“I didn’t think about having a professional career before, but because of [my] brother now I have,” says Cody, from Yuen Long. “Practice would be more fun if I could play along with him. We are both training at the HKSI but at different times. He also lives in the hostel at the Institute and we meet each other less than before.”
A host of stars have impressed at the World Finals, which began in 1991: David Nalbandian, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters to name just four.
Lin, from Tin Shui Wai, will seek inspiration from one of the winners of the 2000 boys’ event. “My idol is Rafael Nadal,” she says. “I love his persistence. I want to be as tough as him in terms of mental strength.”
That fighting spirit was key in the qualifiers, with coach Liu wondering if their rivals took HK lightly: the three girls are all ranked around the 1000 mark in world rankings, with many of their opponents far above them.
The girls won’t be able to fly under the radar in Prostejov, and they’ll face a new challenge as the surface is clay: apart from a couple of courts at the HKSI, it’s pretty much non-existent in Hong Kong.
“Our team target is to reach the quarter-final, but we will have to take one match at a time,” says Jenny, from Tsing Yi. “I hope we can be pressure-free and learn from every opponent.
“I think we may have some overseas clay competitions to familiarise ourselves with the surface. I think the footwork will be the most important part – we need to know how to glide in order to play.”
As well as gliding, coach Liu is urging his team to fly. “Hong Kong juniors in recent years never reached this height at 14,” he says.
“If you get success early you can reach a certain height and look further. This was an eye-opening experience and now they know they can be really good players.”