Tennis needs to attract the best athletes, says Tim Henman as Road to Wimbledon comes to Hong Kong
Briton backs initiative that is about ensuring the sport is accessible to all youngsters
The last time Tim Henman was in Hong Kong, the former darling of British tennis had to settle for playing an unfamiliar role of the villain.
Then aged 26, Henman was in town competing in the 2000 Hong Kong Open, and found himself playing Michael Chang.
“I was definitely the enemy that day,” he says, with a laugh, while talking to the South China Morning Post at the Victoria Park Tennis Centre.
“He was so big in Asia when he was playing. I beat him that day so it was always a great atmosphere playing in the night match on the stadium court. It’s amazing to be back after all these years.”
Henman is back as an HSBC brand ambassador for a ‘Road to Wimbledon’ juniors tournament and coaching clinic.
A four-time Wimbledon semi-finalist, former world former four Henman captured the hearts of a nation during his playing days with his battles against the weight of expectation of ending Britain’s long wait for a male singles winner at the All England Club.
He seems sheepish when introduced at a press conference after our interview as Britain’s “Mr Wimbledon” – he would no doubt be the first to admit Andy Murray has taken that mantle.
But his heroic near misses made him synonymous with the grass courts of Wimbledon, as well as the traditional British rain showers, one of which helped scupper his title bid in 2001 when he surrendered a two sets to one lead against Goran Ivanisevic.
On Saturday, 32 local junior players battled it out for the right to play in the Road to Wimbledon tournament finals next summer.
Wimbledon and HSBC have been running the programme in the UK for 14 years, and for four years in India, in a bid to unearth junior talent. Now it is Hong Kong’s turn.
“We’ve had a lot of success,” says Henman. “I’m sure in this region it will be no different. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s about producing a champion, it’s about accessibility and opportunity, getting more and more kids playing the game.
“You can really see how it develops. Wimbledon is a huge carrot for the kids to play the tournaments, and then the best ones to come through and play the national finals.”
Hong Kong Tennis Association chief Philip Mok Kwan-yat agrees that the challenge ahead lies in changing attitudes and mindsets.
“It’s the culture,” he says. “Hong Kong, like many other Asian societies, doesn’t place a high importance in sports as a profession.
“Everyone does some sort of sports recreationally, but I think one of the goals of the Hong Kong Tennis Association is to be able to produce professional players that can compete on the world stage.
“One of the biggest challenges is to convince the parents, the families that sports can actually be rewarding as a profession.”
Henman sees similarities in the challenges faced by Hong Kong and his native Great Britain in producing players.
“Andy Murray and – with all due respect – myself, we’re very good at sport,” says Henman. “I was good at football, I was good at rugby, I was good at cricket, but I chose to play tennis and Murray’s the same. Give us a ball to throw, kick or catch and we’re very good at it.
“So for me with the money we have to invest, we’ve got to do a better job of getting the better athletes playing tennis.
“The reality is, when you look in the UK, at our sport, we have a pool of talent that are world-class athletes. We have a world-class football team, rugby team and cricket team; our success in the Olympics has been phenomenal.
“The ones that end up playing tennis are not good enough. They’re not the athletes who have hand-eye coordination and athletic ability. So the challenge is to make tennis more accessible to get those kids within that talent pool to play tennis.
“I’m sure it would be the same here. In Hong Kong your pool of talent might be smaller. But then still tennis has got to get the best athletes.”
Mok and the HKTA are working hard to make sure that does happen, in Hong Kong at least. This year, Hong Kong will see three players – Brian Hung Lap-hei, Kevin Yeung and Katherine Ip Cheng – declare they are going to pursue tennis professionally.
“It’s got to be step by step,” says Mok. “In the past 20 or 30 years we really haven’t had anyone, or very few, who have competed professionally and had some results.
“But I think it’s slowly changing. Last year and this year we’ve had more and more players telling us they are willing to make that step.”
Tennis in Hong Kong is on an upward curve. It is in the third year of a four-year Sports Institute funding cycle as a tier A sport, allowing its athletes to enjoy greater resources.
Players can train at the Sports Institute with a national coach and assistant coaches specifically tailored for that elite group, while medical treatment, physio and mental health services are all provided too.
“Hong Kong doesn’t lack the money, it’s really changing the mindset and the culture,” says Mok. “Road to Wimbledon is a great example of one of the things we’re trying to do to change the culture. “It’s to basically give them a very close interaction with a world-class brand, event and players so we can inspire them to show them that this is actually a path you can take and you can succeed in.”
In Saturday’s finals, Tim Gauntlett defeated Coleman Wong to win the boys’ event, while Sheena Karrasch saw off Kelly Leung to win the girls’ title, with all four players guaranteed pf a spot in the finals in August.