Hong Konger Tong Ka Po came into tennis almost by accident at age 11 and rose to become one of Hong Kong’s top ranked players. But as her early career faltered, it was a family tragedy which spurred the plucky teenager to beat all expectations.
“Some folks call tennis a rich people’s sport or a white person’s game. I guess I started too early because I just thought it was something fun to do.” — Arthur Ashe
Despite decades of proof to the contrary, tennis is still often perceived as a game for “rich people”. Arthur Ashe famously dismissed this belief almost half a century ago, yet the affluence of tennis fans and the game’s lingering “country club” image make it a hard impression to shake.
But Hong Kong tennis legend Tong Ka Po is proof of the power of grassroots tennis. Tong comes from a very modest background. The first time she picked up a tennis racket was through a Hong Kong Tennis Association (HKTA) mini-tennis community programme in Tsim Sha Tsui, playing on makeshift tennis courts set up across a indoor soccer pitch at a municipal complex.
“I was a bit naughty at school,” says the former Hong Kong number one. “The HKTA had delivered some leaflets to the school about the mini-tennis programme and my teacher thought maybe it would help me burn off some of that energy,” she says.
Tong remembers vividly the six courts spread over the indoor pitches at the municipal complex, and the feel of the mini-tennis racket swinging in her hand for the first time. It was destiny — within just half an hour, the coach told her parents their daughter did not belong in mere mini-tennis, and within a month, she was on board a plane with the Hong Kong national squad bound for Beijing.
“It was my first time away from home, my first time out of Hong Kong. I remember the banknotes, they were the old communist notes, the place was so mysterious! ” she says.
Tong’s performance in Beijing (she lost 6–0, 6–0) did not match up to the coaches’ expectations. “They told my father, ‘your daughter is not as good as we thought, we’re not sure she is going to make it’,” she says. “My father didn’t tell me, I just heard him talking about it with my mum and I was upset,. hated to disappoint my parents. My sister was already successful academically and so I had to earn my place at home, earn some respect. I just put my head down and kept training.”
Tong worked hard, squeezing every minute of precious training into her schedule. She used to hit against the wall with her father when no courts were to be found. “I loved the wall at Kowloon Tsai, before there was even a tennis complex there, when it was public courts” she says. “My father would bring me there. He doesn’t know tennis, he just saw I had the ambition to be really good, so he learned, he tried to play and to be my coach. That is how we grew. It sounds ridiculous, but that was it. I had the national training, and after the national training I would go from the court with my father, any time I could squeeze in to get more feel from the ball.”
Tong’s grit and determination paid off. “The next thing I know, I am number one in Hong Kong, number 5 in the world, at age 12.”
As Tong says, there’s a lot of money involved in raising a sports star.
“The money is huge. To be an athlete, you need financial support. On my own, I must have cost around at least one and a half million [Hong Kong dollars] each year just in travel and expenses. And I was very lucky, I really appreciate the support the HKTA gave me, to have that support was huge for me,” she says. “All I learned between 11 and 14, I am still using now, and teaching the youngsters.
Tong says the period was a great experience for her, travelling every school holidays and taking the world by storm.
But in the 1990s, tragedy struck the family, as Tong’s mother was diagnosed with a rare and terminal blood cancer.
Aside from the emotional trauma, this put the family’s finances into ruin. “My family had financial difficulty and my siblings and I learned to look after ourselves. We had to earn our spot in whatever field we are in.”
The youngster took her game to the next level, joining the pro tour and shooting up the ranks. “I got myself to 800, 600, 500, struggled a little bit, 450, struggled a little bit, 300, 250 and I struggled a long time, at 250.”
Tong’s ability caught the eye of Ivy league schools in the US, where several colleges offered her scholarships. “Not just scholarships, they would pay for me to attend community college for a year first, one even offered to adopt me as a daughter to solve via requirements,” she says.
But Tong’s mother was, by now, in critical condition. “Mum said, I could go to college any time, but I might not get much chance to see her any more,” she says. “So I decide to stay on tour.”
“Mum was really happy, she was in and out of hospital, and she said, she feels close to me when I’m on tour because she can see me on the TV, on the six o’clock news, or the sports channels. She would watch me from the hospital. She said the doctors would take extra good care of her because of her daughter on the TV.”
After her mother passed way, Tong remained on the tour, taking her game to a new level. “I beat the national China number one in the Fed Cup,” she says, “and they tried to recruit me to China. And at that time, because of the politics, I couldn’t go!”
“At that time they had a great team, you could see China was becoming more open,” she said.
Even as a junior and at a young age, Tong had noticed stark differences in the way the Chinese trained. “I spent a lot of time in China, age 11, 12 up, and I saw their training. It was so drill-based, it wasn’t like our British coaches who would take us out to tournaments, let us lose. They didn’t understand the importance of points. They would spend hours and hours on empty swings,” she says. “Or target practice, hitting a ball at a target 500 times.”
The food, too, shocked young Tong. “How can they eat that way and be elite players?” she says. “They ate these traditional deep fried dumplings, or this watery congee for breakfast! You can’t play on that!”
Tong says it was around the time Hong Kong’s tennis stared to decline, in 1997, that China, ironically, started to look out to the world, and import some different ideas. Out went the congee, in came a diet Roger Federer would approve. “The new western coaches in China encouraged the players to go out and travel the world, to not be afraid to lose.”
Tong says this is why China now has such great world standing. “They have those players because they did what we did in the British days. The western coaches brought in the different ideas, how to eat, how to train, how to do fitness, how to prepare for the match… and they grew!”
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, with tennis in decline, Tong struggled to find a peer. “I struggled to find a hitting partner, just someone to hit with.”
The culture shift in Hong Kong frustrated Tong, as attitudes and parental pressure in Hong Kong shifted the focus from diligence to short-cuts.
“The parents would get too much involved, telling the coaches what to do, too many complaints.. for a coach, that hurts. When I was training, my father would not say a word to Mike Walker, there’s no way! People worry, ‘is my son talented enough?’… well there’s nothing like talent, you just work hard,” she says.
Tong’s career came to an end at 21, ranked world #238, when she “was promised the Earth” by a suitor and made the decision to marry and start a family. The promise, she says, turned out to be empty. Now a single mom, Tong is still active in the tennis community and finding a way to balance her family life and give back to the game she loves so much.
But while she says she can still dream of a return, there’s no going back to the game.
“It’s not that I want or don’t want… I just cannot. I cannot really remember how I win. You lose it. I know the technique to win, but mentally, I don’t have the guts any more. It’s not easy on the tour, it’s not really about talent, it’s about … every day, you go out and beat yourself up, and nobody can prepare you for that.”
[Based on an interview in February 2016]