Hong Kong tennis star Jack Wong ditches studies to enrol in sport's school of hard knocks
Local teenager is determined to make it as a professional player on the ATP circuit
Teenage siblings Jack Wong Hong-kit and Cody Wong Hong-yi could represent the next generation of tennis in Hong Kong, but even Cody is surprised by her brother's dedication.
"I'm 13 and when I get older, I don't think I will be able to follow the path of my brother," says the Diocesan Girls School student, referring to 16-year-old Jack's decision last September to quit school to devote himself fully to becoming a professional - with the blessing of mum and dad.
"Cody will not be able to do what I have done even if she wants to. My parents will never allow her to give up her studies because they know how tough it is trying to become a professional tennis player," Jack says. "It is a hard life when you start out, but I'm willing to take that chance and my parents are backing me all the way."
Jack left La Salle College to pursue his dream. Next month he takes a major step when he plays in three ITF Futures tournaments at Victoria Park, the first level in a three-tiered progression towards becoming a professional on the ATP circuit.
"The next two to three years will be important," says Jack. "If I do well, I will keep on going, but if I find I'm not good enough then I will go back to my studies. If I study now and wait until my exams are over I will be 20 and it will be too late.
"My only chance is now. I can always go back and study, but I can never get back this opportunity to turn professional. If I don't take it, it will be gone forever."
No other young Hong Kong tennis talent has made such a commitment; fellow Hong Kong Sports Institute athlete Andrew Li Hei-yin did leave school, but continued to study part-time online and is heading to a Georgia Tech in the US in September on a sports scholarship.
Sister Cody explains how hard it is to mix both: "School is from 8am to 3.40pm for me, after that I go to the Sports Institute to train from 4pm to 8pm. I then return home [in Yuen Long] around 9pm, have my dinner and start on my homework. I go to bed every night after 11pm. It is very tiring."
Jack tried the same routine and found his grades falling. "I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my dad and become a policeman. But I have now put all those goals behind me and I'm just concentrating on a career as a professional. I know it will not be easy but I'm going to give it my best shot," he says.
The Hong Kong Tennis Association has identified him as a rough diamond and hopes that he can become a polished star carrying the hopes of the city in Davis Cup competition - he has already been involved in two ties - as Hong Kong attempt to get back to Group One in Asia from Group Three.
"It is not an easy decision giving up school, especially among conservative Chinese society. Most parents would put academics ahead of anything else," said Chris Lai, HKTA chief executive. "As an NSA [national sports association] we have to be responsible for him, especially if he fails to make it on the pro circuit.
"What we can do is to give him an assurance that we will hire him as a coach or some other fulltime position within the HKTA so that he can make a career out of it. I know [other sports associations] are doing this for athletes who have contributed all their life to a particular sport, and it is good for them to contribute back to the sport and to develop the next generation.
"Jack is a very talented player and I feel he will become Hong Kong's leading player if he continues to be persistent and works hard.
"He will be a core player in the Davis Cup team in the next few years and I certainly hope he can pick up some ATP ranking points in the ITF Futures next month."
Wong had three wins and one defeat in four Davis Cup matches he played in the Group 3 round-robin in Kuala Lumpur in March.
The HKTA have given him as many opportunities as they can. When Hong Kong hosted an ATP Challenger event last year, Jack played in the qualifying draw but failed to make it to the main event, getting a taste of how hard it will be to join the pros.
"I have no illusions. I know it is not going to be easy. But I have the support of everyone here, including the Hong Kong Sports Institute, and I want to give it a go," he says.
"Next year will be my final year in my junior career and in 2017 I will start on my senior career. I need to toughen up, get stronger. I must be ready to take on this challenge."