Asians are conspicuous by their absence from the top tennis tournaments in the world, but only a handful of people really understand why. One of these is Hong Kong's Willy Chan Lee, who speaks from experience. Her hopes of making it into the upper ranks of women's tennis were dashed by a lack of financial backing and resources. Chan, as a 14-year-old, went to a tennis coaching camp in the United States in 1992, but soon found out how tough it was going to be to get to the top. Although sponsored by the Hong Kong Tennis Association (HKTA) and offered the best coaching and training facilities, she says there was a world of difference between the sport in Hong Kong and the United States. AAIt was more than 10 years ago and (Hong Kong) society at that time did not really pay much importance to sports. There was no comparison. The facilities were better in the US, there were more coaches and more opportunities to play all things that were not available in Hong Kong. But it all cost a lot. I knew I would not be able to afford long-term training in the States.'' So, her parents paid around L HK$30,000 to enrol her at the prestigious Bollettieri Academy in Florida where Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Monica Seles were trained by renowned coach Nick Bollettieri. AAIt was a lot of money and travelling around was expensive,'' she recalls. Chan was put into the academy's division one group, one below the elite group, which included Agassi and Seles, who trained at the camp between tournaments. AAI don't know if I was glad or sad to be put in the division one,'' says Chan. AAThere was much difference between the two groups in terms of standard. There were about 10 of us in the division. But I knew my strengths. I was proud of my quick feet and solid grip. I was consistent. I could be down 2-5 and 0-40 and still come back and take the match.'' After two months in the camp, she realised she was better than a lot of other players. AAI knew my position after Bollettieri. I knew I was not that far away from the leading group.'' A confident, petit Chan, aged 15 and ranked 604 on the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) list, launched herself on to the professional tennis circuit in March 1993, chased entry into tournaments around the world. In 1994, training under Hong Kong Sports Institute head tennis coach Mark Bailey, she gained direct entry into the main draw of the junior girls' tournament at the US Open because she was in the top 50 in the under-18 girls' division of the International Tennis Federation (ITF). Chan chooses her words carefully when she speaks about her career. AAThe HKTA sent me to take part in the competitions. I have no idea how much they paid. Mark basically took care of all the logistics for me. I was not travelling with my parents and Mark was like a godfather at that time.'' When she was promoted from the junior to senior ranks, she knew she was moving to the next level, competing with a different group of people on a different circuit. The role of her coach became even more important and there were numerous other factors to consider. AAHalf of Michael Chang's success should be credited to his brother (and coach) Carl, and the strategies they used. You need to know your strengths and weaknesses,'' she says. AAI didn't just need a coach, but also world-class hitting partners, strategies and all kinds of support. The sponsorships from the HKTA and other organisations helped me a lot. It took about HK$100,000 to take part in one tournament to pay for the hotel, food, transportation and everything. I didn't have that sort of money. Tennis is an expensive sport. You need to invest a lot before it pays off if it ever does.'' Chan could have carried on competing in tournaments, so maintaining a ranking, but she knew she would not be happy with a mediocre record. AAI did not see a way out. I realised at that point I could not reach the top 20 (in the WTA rankings), no matter what I did.'' Aged 17, she quit and went back to school in Hong Kong to complete Grade 12 (Form Six). Afterwards, she picked up her racquet again and played briefly in the Challenger series before going to the United States to resume her studies in 1996. Chan had the pedigree to be a champion her father was a member of the Chinese national badminton team and her mother was a member of the Chinese national tennis team. Born in Fujian, she moved to Hong Kong as a 10- year-old with her parents in 1987 and was awarded a scholarship by the HKTA. AAI thought that if Michael Chang could be the first Chinese American guy to make it, I could be the first Chinese woman. But it was Martina Navratilova who inspired me. I first picked up my racquet at eight and I immediately knew I wanted to achieve what Navratilova did because I saw her winning on TV. It was difficult to get hold of video tapes of her matches in China.'' Looking back, the 26-year-old Chan has bittersweet memories of those years. She hasn't turned her back on tennis she coaches young hopefuls when she has time but she has certainly developed a sense of perspective. AAPeople, young players included, just don't understand how hard it is to become a top player,'' she says. AAIt's a matter of mindset. Hong Kong juniors see tennis as leisure. I don't think the Hong Kong authorities are injecting enough resources into the sport. You have to train kids before, not after, they become famous.'' As for Asia's big hope on the tennis horizon, Thailand's Paradorn Srichaphan, Chan says he has everything he needs to be a leading player. AAHe has the build of a westerner. He doesn't have to play defensively because he can hit the ball as hard as other six-foot guys. Besides, he comes from a well-off family and has sponsors.'' Chan, however, thinks things are changing and one day Asians could be as good in tennis as they are in badminton and table tennis. AAAsians are getting taller and bigger. With a carefully drafted strategy, I believe some day we will see more Asian players coming through.''