No tennis player representing Hong Kong had found success on a medal quest on the Mainland since the legendary Ip Koon Hung and the Tsui Brothers did so at the China National Games in Shanghai in 1948. Since then, however, a dry spell ensued. That changed when John Hui and Melvin Tong managed to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat in the playoff for bronze in rather dramatic circumstances during the 9th All China Games in Guangzhou in 2001.
In order to secure a ticket for the final rounds in Guangzhou, players must go through qualifying. By the time the ACG qualies came around in Tianjin during the first week of September 2001, John had just clawed his way from No. 1075 at the beginning of the year to No. 478, a new career-high. Yet, in spite of runner-up finishes at the New Zealand F3 and France F14 Futures, a maiden pro circuit title still eluded him. Moreover, while John and Melvin were familiar with each other’s style of play, they had not competed together as a tandem since a loss against Nicolas Kiefer and Nicolas Lapentti at the Salem Open in October 2000.
In fact, the HK duo’s medal hopes almost ended as soon as it had begun, for they were literally a few points away from defeat in their very first qualifying match. After splitting the first two sets with Lu Hao and Xu Ran (PLA) in the round of 32, John and Melvin were up by a break and served for the match at 5-4 in the deciding set. However, not only did they lose serve, they were to waste a multitude of break point opportunities in the ensuing game when Lu Hao’s service game went to deuce at least a dozen times.
Since qualifying spots were not available through the backdoor via a consolation draw, defeat would have meant the end of the All China Games for them. As Team Coach Stan Tamura put it: “If they had lost, they would have been eliminated with no chance to qualify for the finals, so the pressure was on.” Now trailing 6-5 and a mere four points away from getting ousted from the ACG all together, John and Melvin must hold serve just to force a tiebreak. Fortunately, despite some initial nerves, they managed to close out the game and took immediate charge in the breaker to win the match, 6-1, 4-6, 7-6(2).
The qualifying clincher turned out to be the most straightforward of all their victories that year at the ACG, as John and Melvin’s, 6-4, 6-3, last sixteen win against Liu Shuo and Li Jing-Yi (Yunnan) guaranteed their spot in November’s All China Games proper. Yet, there was still something else to play for. On the cards was a seeding for Guangzhou, if they can reach the final four of the qualies here in Tianjin, that is. Next up, the Hong Kong combo wasted no time in dismissing Wang Yue-Wei and Yan Jinan (Shanghai) in straight sets, 6-4, 6-2, to set up a semifinal rendezvous with local boys, Wang Yu and Yang Yi-Min (Tianjin). Needless to say, being seeded in November would mean the world, for it could potentially make or break any sort of hopes for a medal.
The opening set against Wang and Yang began with a break serve fest, as both teams managed to hold just once during the first half dozen games played. Finally, in the eleventh game, John and Melvin broke the 5-5 stalemate and immediately consolidated the service break to bag the opening set, 7-5. However, urged on by a vociferous home crowd, the Tianjin tandem began to make inroads and started to play more fluidly as the match progressed. Wang and Yang eventually secured the crucial break at 3-3 in the second set and never looked back, pulling away to seal a 5-7, 6-3, 6-1 victory.
By the time the ACG proper came around in November 2001, John was on the verge of cracking the Top 300. He was to end the year at No. 301, a new career-high and a hike of some 774 places from less than a year ago. What’s more, he had just teamed up with regular touring partner, Anthony Ross, to win his first pro circuit title at the Hong Kong F2 Futures. The week before, the HK-Aussie duo upset No. 2 seed Scott Humphries and Jim Thomas, 6-4, 6-7(5), 7-6(3), to reach the quarterfinals of the US$400,000 ATP Tour event in Shanghai.
Once the main rounds commenced in Guangzhou, the opening match again caused problems for John and Melvin, and they did not draw a seeded opponent either. Against unheralded Jiang Xubo and Liu Hua (Sichuan) – neither of whom had held a professional ranking – they surrendered the first set after play was moved indoors abruptly due to heavy showers before carving out a hard-fought, 2-6, 6-4, 7-5 decision just to clear the opening hurdle. In the ensuing quarterfinals, as if Adam Smith’s notorious Invisible Hand had somehow tinkered with nature’s course, John and Melvin would once again face Wang Yu, Jr. and Yang Yi-Min, the No. 4 seed in Guangzhou. The biggest difference between the showdown here and the one a couple of months ago was that a place in the medal rounds was now up for grabs.
Although the score remained close till the bitter end, with the stakes invariably much higher this time round, John and Melvin coolly dispatched the Tianjin tandem in two tiebreak sets. Up against the best doubles team at the 9th All China Games, and for the second time in less than a week, John and Melvin were still short of figuring out the top-seeded pair of Bruce Li and Yang Jing-Zhu (Beijing), as they went down with an identical, 6-4, 6-4, setback similar to the one suffered in the team event just ten days earlier.
Whilst understandably disappointed not to be fighting for gold, a medal remained to be had, as they approached the playoff for bronze with No. 2 seeds Zhu Ben-Qiang and Jiang Shan (Hubei), who were defeated by third seeds Lu Ling and Zhang Yu (Beijing) in the other semis. Jiang Shan, incidentally, was a member of Hubei’s gold medal winning men’s team in 2001, and he is married to current Chinese No. 1, Li Na, herself a triple gold medallist at the 9th ACG.
Nevertheless, John and Melvin were facing a pair that had performed heroically just a week earlier to beat Bruce Li and Yang Jing-Zhu (Beijing) in the deciding doubles during the men’s team final to secure Hubei a 2-1 victory over the fancied Beijing squad. Moreover, Zhu Ben-Qiang and Jiang Shan had already beaten the HK duo in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, to secure the match-clinching point in Hubei’s 2-1 win against Hong Kong in the men’s team quarterfinals less than a week ago. Evidence thus congruently pointed towards a Hubei tandem that was not only in form, but one that also holds a psychological edge over its Hong Kong counterparts.
Predictably, the Mainland duo began with an aura of invincibility against John and Melvin. Zhu Ben-Qiang and Jiang Shan jumped out to a double break, and staked themselves to seemingly surefire leads of 4-0 and 5-1. A small section of the crowd started to disperse for refreshments, expecting a runaway opening set for Hubei. A couple of stunning winners from Hong Kong, coupled with a number of glaring miscues from Hubei later, however, the preponderance depicted so outwardly by Zhu Ben-Qiang and Jiang Shan suddenly began to wobble.
And boy, did they start to really wobble.
Seeing that their opponents were caught struggling to cope with the glaring sun, especially when executing the overhead smash, the HK duo exploited this weakness to the max, at times utilizing the lob as first option even, to their visibly frustrated opponent’s dismay. The chaps from Hong Kong pulled themselves away from the double break abyss to force a tiebreak. Although there were chances for either team early on, it was John and Melvin who managed to consolidate that vital mini-break to steal the opening set tiebreaker by the score of 7-4. The second set was on serve and neck-and-neck until the ninth game when John and Melvin strung together a myriad of stinging returns and forecourt intercepts to break Zhu Ben-Qiang’s serve. John held authoritatively in the next game, finishing their opponents off in style with a thumping ace on match point.
Historically, most considered a sizeable gulf had always existed between China and Hong Kong’s best and brightest in most sports. It may have construed as unthinkable even to the most diehard Hong Kong sports fans to entertain the deliberation of beating a leading Chinese pair in a medal game during the biggest competition staged on the Mainland. Clearly, this win begs to differ with that imaginary phenomenon.
“I guess many people and juniors in Hong Kong always seem to have the perception that China is always above Hong Kong players in their minds, but this need not be the case,” explains John. “Hong Kong players have much more international experience than their mainland counterparts and I see no reason why Hong Kong cannot eventually beat China in the Davis Cup or local players achieving more than them.”
Physical attributes, on the other hand, may still be a hindrance to many. He went on, “Physique, I think, is a big factor in tennis, and that is why you don’t really see Asia producing a lot of top-level tennis players. Without a big serve nowadays, it is very difficult to make it.” However, what stood out in the end was that there is no monopoly on acts of fine individual performance, even for a tennis minnow such as Hong Kong.
“Sports or tennis is never a big priority in our culture and this will always be a drawback for us. No system in the world can continuously mass produce top players and a great example is Australia. Tennis is an individual sport and the individual needs to have talent and most importantly dedication to make it to the next level. Support from the family, of course, is also very important,” he remarked.
The 9th All China Games took place from November 11-25 in Guangzhou in 2001.
Photos: Dr. Derek Ling