Hong Kong tennis chief determined to make city a must-visit for world's top stars once again
HKTA chief executive is hoping to inject new life into the sport which once attracted the world's top professionals to the city playing to packed crowds at Victoria Park
It's a quiet midweek evening at Victoria Park with the action mostly taking place on the outside courts as willing youngsters chase down balls flying in all directions.
Walk inside the main stadium and you'll find centre court standing almost deserted, save for a few dedicated parents supporting some of the city's rising stars as they wait to take turns in a promotional session being shot with Yan Zi, the now Hong Kong-based Chinese former player and history maker as a two-time grand slam doubles title winner.
It's all part of the build-up to the US$250,000 Prudential Hong Kong Tennis Open from October 10 to 18.
When Chris Lai takes up a seat, he looks down on Yan, now an assistant tournament director, as she begins a hit-out with local player Amy Ki Yan-tung, and his talk soon turns to the past.
The only distraction is the thwack on a racquet and the bouncing of balls and there's history in those sounds, too, that echoes back to a time in the 1980s and '90s when Hong Kong regularly hosted some of the greats of the game and the stadium was on most nights packed to the rafters.
"There's been a bit of an anti-climax since the days when we hosted [Pete] Sampras and [Jim] Courier and [Andre] Agassi," says Lai, chief executive of the Hong Kong Tennis Association.
"Those events were very well attended and we saw some great tennis. It's going to take us a while to build this tournament back up, but we'll get there. Sometimes the hardest thing is to just start."
Therein lies one of the missions Lai set himself when he took up his post last May.
The former top junior and one-time Davis Cup player was always among the faithful in the stands back in days when the city hosted regular pro tour and then exhibitions events that lured the likes of Serena and Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.
The latest incarnation of the sport's Hong Kong Open was taken on by the HKTA for its first staging last year and with dreams of those glory days returning, of some of the world's best turning up and - hopefully - that a new generation of players would be inspired by what they saw.
"The emphasis this year has been on the field because we wanted to jump start the event, to make it one of the biggest events on the local sporting calendar," says Lai.
The 2015 edition is reaching its way towards those lofty goals. The WTA International-rated event has attracted grand slam singles champions Venus Williams (nine), Victoria Azarenka (two) and Sam Stosur (one), as well as a number of the games rising stars, including Garbine Muguruza, Eugenie Bouchard, and last year's winner Sabine Lisicki.
There will be five locals flying the bauhinia flag, led by the city's top-ranked player Zhang Ling, and Ki, who was granted a wild card for winning the Hong Kong Championships in April.
To engage the community there will be "People's Monday", says Lai, an initiative which follows the HKTA's commitment to spreading the game and one which offers free entry, autograph sessions and coaching clinics run by the stars.
Since last May the HKTA has been taking the game to primary schools in the city's more economically disadvantaged districts, giving promising young athletes the chance to learn the sport and train weekly.
"One day we hope to develop a champion or at least someone who can find a job as a tennis coach and give something back to the game that way, or just encourage people to play the sport and be healthy," says Lai.
Tennis is certainly not the only sport that has historically had to fight for the hearts and minds of its players - Lai for one had to combine his own tennis career in the late 1990s with one in the "real world" as an auditor with Price Waterhouse - as well as for the kind of government support that can make or break a career, and a tournament.
But the Open has received Mega Events Fund backing and in April the sport was welcomed back into the Sports Institute after a break of seven years.
Improved results by players such as Zhang enabled the sport to work its way through the elite academy's byzantine points system and secure guaranteed funds over the next four years of around HK$5 million.
"We are basically exhausting every bit of resources we have," says Lai, of the effort needed to stage the Open and to continue the HKTA's junior programmes.
"But we have the sponsors and the government helping us now and we are looking to the future," he said.