Skip to content

Boys of ’94: Hong Kong’s debut at WJT Finals


Boys of ’94: Hong Kong’s debut at WJT Finals

In 1991, the ITF launched World Junior Tennis (WJT), a worldwide international team competition for players aged 14 and under that served as a key component in an aspiring junior player’s development. Each year, some 100 countries engage in Regional Qualifying in order to earn a place in the World Finals, where the top 16 boys’ and girls’ teams from Africa, North/Central America, South America, Europe, and Asia/Oceania converge to compete for the title. Since the event’s inauguration, the Hong Kong boys’ team has made it to the promised land just three times, in 1994, 2001, and 2023. This is the story of how a couple of local kids took on Lleyton Hewitt’s Australia, battled mighty USA to a standstill, and beat host nation Japan in Hong Kong’s maiden appearance amongst the world’s best.

The WJT gives young tennis players the opportunity to experience international competition and the unique atmosphere of playing in a team event for their country, a prelude of sorts to the big stage of the Davis Cup. Japan hosted the World Finals from 1991-95 on artificial grass at the scenic Yamanakako Tennis Club with the majestic Mount Fuji as the backdrop, then from 1996-98 at the Higashiyama Keon Tennis Centre in Nagoya. For the first six years, the event’s title sponsor was the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corporation (NTT). Starting in 1999, the WJT relocated to the clay courts of the TK Prostejov Club in Prostejov, Czech Republic.

At the 1994 Asia/Oceania Qualifying, the Hong Kong boys’ under-14 team of Jason Sankey, Wayne Wong, Desmond Chen, and Mike Walker (Captain) arrived in Thailand knowing that only a top 3 finish could earn the side a place in the World Finals in Japan. After losing first-up to the Aussies, a team that boasted a 13-year-old Lleyton Hewitt at No. 2 singles, Hong Kong won its next four matches against Jordan, Philippines, Thailand, and China to progress to the semifinals. One of the key wins was against China where Wong initially lost 6-2 6-0 to Xu Ran at the No. 2 spot, but Sankey was able to bring Hong Kong back on even terms after he beat Jiang Shan 6-2 6-3 at the one. Under pressure, the HK duo was more composed than their Chinese counterparts and collaborated to win the deciding doubles 6-2 6-3 to advance to the knockout stage.¹

Chinese Taipei and Korea were the two teams to emerge from the other side of the draw. In the semifinals, the Aussies drew the Koreans, while Hong Kong was paired up against the Taiwanese. Against Chinese Taipei, Wong produced a stirring 6-4 5-7 6-3 triumph over Fu Hsiao-Wei at the two spot to hand over a 1-0 lead. In a match-up between the number ones, Sankey, who captured both the under-14 and under-18 boys’ singles titles at the 1994 Hong Kong National Junior Tennis Championships, prevailed in straight sets 6-1 7-5 against Cheng Wei-Jen, who would go on to capture the Asian Closed Junior Championships, Nokia Sugar Bowl, and the Grade 2 Hong Kong Open Junior Championships to reach No. 12 in the world a few years later. With the semifinal win, Hong Kong earned an unprecedented spot in the World Finals regardless of the first place playoff against Australia, who beat Korea, as expected. Captain Mike Walker fielded Desmond Chen and Wong for the remaining doubles and they did not disappoint, winning 6-4 6-2 against Fu and Chiu Yi-Chung to complete a 3-0 victory.

In the playoff for first and second place, the boys from Hong Kong lost to the Aussies again, but this time with Sankey going all the way to where he stood just a point away from victory. Holding a 6-0 lead in the final set tiebreak, counterpart Glenn Knox, quite remarkably, teed off eight winners in a row to thwart the Hong Kong No. 1, 8-6. Walker, nonetheless, was still extremely pleased with their overall performance throughout the week. “They played brilliantly. They produced the best tennis I have seen from Hong Kong players in this age group and this is the first time we have ever reached the World Finals.”

The same Aussie team of Hewitt, Knox, and Nathan Healey would go on to reach the final of the under-16 Junior Davis Cup two years later in Zurich where they lost to a stacked French side headed by Jerome Haehnel and future world No. 2, Julien Jeanpierre, who wound up winning the B16 Orange Bowl in 1996. After Jeanpierre beat Hewitt 6-3 7-5 in the JDC final, he went on to defeat the Aussie twice more the following year at Roehampton and Junior Wimbledon.

Four months later at the World Finals in Japan, Hong Kong once again drew the ire of the Aussies in the same group and played them first-up, again. After Wong succumbed to Hewitt in straight sets at No. 2 singles, Sankey and Knox were immersed in a battle royale, with the HK No. 1 grabbing the first 7-5 and his counterpart nabbing the second 6-3. Tied at a set apiece, Sankey jumped out to a 4-1 lead. Just two games away from victory, severe cramping reared its ugly head. With his movement round the court heavily compromised, he came unstuck physically at 4-4, rendering him unable to continue. Australia won 2-0, again.²

Hong Kong then faced the mighty United States of America. At No. 2 singles, K.J. Hippensteel beat Wong 6-2 6-1 to give USA a 1-0 lead, but Sankey was unfazed and took down American No. 1 David Martin 7-5 6-4 to force proceedings to a deciding doubles. The HK boys bagged the second set 6-4 to level at a set apiece before they eventually went down against Hippensteel and Philip Nguyen, the B14 doubles winning tandem at the USTA Junior National Championships in 1994.³

Against hosts Japan in the 13th Place Playoff, Wong defeated Ikko Kambara 5-7 6-2 6-4 in front of a partisan crowd, setting the stage for Sankey to deliver the coup de grâce, a 6-4 3-6 6-3 beating of opposing No. 1 Ryota Taguchi, to conclude Hong Kong’s historic debut on the WJT stage against the best under-14 players in the world.

“Against Hewitt was tough because he just never missed a ball,” said Wong. “Even at that age, qualities that made him a great player later on, like amazing court speed, ferocious determination, and unrelenting ground strokes, were already becoming evident. But not at all did I think at the time that in three short years, he would beat Agassi on his way to winning his first ATP Tour title at age 16.”

“I remember we had a chance to beat America and that would’ve been pretty cool,” reminisced Sankey. “I guess when I was that age, to be going head-to-head against the No. 1s from leading tennis nations such as Australia and USA, I thought I was a powerhouse too [chuckles]. Now I look back, it was an honour to represent your country, to play at that level. Tennis has given me a lot, so I am appreciative, and I still love tennis. Playing, coaching, and giving back. Tennis is still a big part of my life.”

Walker: “I have great memories of the success that Hong Kong tennis has achieved and my part in that as coach and captain. Reaching the WJT finals in 1994 was certainly a great achievement for the team and Hong Kong tennis. Jason, Wayne and Desmond represented Hong Kong in such a professional manner and performed so well in the qualifying rounds and the finals. Jason won all his matches but one and he might have beaten the Aussie No. 1 had he not suffered from cramps. On those performances, he must be one of the top 10 under-14 players in the world.”

The WJT continues to encourage competitive play among countries and provides a platform for the players to test their abilities against their peers in both singles and doubles. It also promotes teamwork and national pride, as players get to represent their countries on an international stage at an early age. Other notable past WJT participants included Xavier Malisse, Andy Roddick⁴, David Nalbandian, Joachim Johansson, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Kei Nishikori, Frances Tiafoe, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Carlos Alcaraz, to name a few. Since 1991, USA has been the most successful WJT Boys nation, winning the title six times; France and Italy three times respectively; and Argentina, Australia, Korea, Germany, Switzerland twice each.

Aside from 1994, the Hong Kong boys’ team also qualified for the World Finals in 2001 and 2023. One common denominator linking them is that despite a discrepancy in reputation or ranking between traditional tennis powerhouses and a minnow such as Hong Kong, our boys showed that there is no monopoly on fine individual performances. With the right attitude, work ethic, and sufficient self-belief, no flesh and blood opponent across the net is decidedly unconquerable on any given Sunday. However, both talent and hard work must be harnessed and sharpened by competing against the best in order to beat the best.

¹ Jiang Shan should be a name familiar to tennis aficionados. For not only is he Li Na’s husband, his doubles combination with compatriot, Zhu Ben-Qiang, seeded second at the All China Games in 2001, lost out to Hong Kong’s very own John Hui and Melvin Tong in the men’s doubles bronze medal game that year after the Hubei duo had held a 5-1 first set lead before going down 7-6(4) 6-4.

² Still 16, Hewitt beat four top 100 opponents, as well as Andre Agassi, en route to his career-first ATP Tour title at Adelaide in January 1998. In 2001, at age 20, he became the youngest ATP No. 1, a record he went on to hold for over twenty years until Carlos Alcaraz bettered it in 2022.

³ David Martin and KJ Hippensteel both went on to play college tennis for Stanford and Wong would renew the rivalry with them since he played for Berkeley in the same Pac-10 Conference. Case in point, in 2002, Berkeley came from 0-3 down to beat top-ranked Stanford 4-3. The win halted the Berkeley’s 21-match losing streak against Stanford that dated back to May of 1991. It also snapped Stanford’s 75-match home winning streak that first started in 1996. After Wong’s teammate JP Fruttero stunned then NCAA No. 1 K.J. Hippensteel 6-3 1-6 6-3, it was Wong who beat 16th-ranked David Martin 7-6 3-6 6-3 to level the dual match at 3-3.

⁴ Andy Roddick, in his Hall of Fame Induction speech, mentions the name David Martin: “1995 Orange Bowl. It is a small little junior tournament or a big junior tournament, world championships, and Dave Martin was the number one American kid. He was seeded number one and he was gonna waltz through the tournament and all of us other Americans who would lose in the qualies in first and second round, would go watch Dave’s matches afterwards. Third round, he gets a skinny little kid who went through qualifying and Dave wins the first set, no problem all good. Go America. Lose the second, lose the third set and I’m convinced that I just watched the biggest upset in tennis history. Could not believe it. It’s the first time I saw Roger Federer play.”