HK collegians in America during the pandemic
A number of student-athletes from Hong Kong are playing Division I collegiate tennis in the US but the degree to which the coronavirus has affected them is invariably different. Nonetheless, the global pandemic was threatening to derail not only sports, but school all together. Tennishk.org caught up with Sebastian Nothhaft (Baylor) in Texas, Kyle Tang (Louisville) in Kentucky, Jenny Wong (Cornell), and Kara Lin (BYU) in Utah to learn about their experiences thus far.
Nothhaft was initially a Spring enrollee, joining Baylor in January 2020 as a scholarship athlete barely two months removed from winning the GB1 Seogwipo Asia/Oceania Closed Junior Championships. He went 1-0 at the No. 5 singles spot and 6-0 at the No. 6 spot before COVID-19 put a stop on college tennis in March. He returned to Hong Kong immediately and started training at HKSI.
“I was in Hong Kong playing the CRC Invitational last summer,” recalls Nothhaft. “Then second week of August, I got back to Texas and did a 14-day quarantine. After that, we had a normal Fall schedule playing 5 or 6 individual tournaments. Then, I stayed in Texas over the Christmas break and started Spring like normal in January this year.”
“I know how much I profit from college training and having competition and all that and so once I knew the season would happen, the decision to go back and play was a no-brainer.”
He added, “It’s fortunate that we can play tennis in the US and have a proper season, too. We basically have to keep socially distant, 6 feet apart during pre-match meetings and players on the bench 6 feet apart also. We get tested at least twice weekly with the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test and then the morning we leave, we do a rapid test with the use of nasal swab where result comes back within the hour. Travel, we need to wear goggles and N95 masks.”
Aside from strict team rules, it is up to the players to act responsibly since they are the ultimate decision-makers on how to conduct themselves, be it in classrooms, dormitories, dining facilities, or social interactions with others. Successful mitigation of the risk of COVID-19 spread requires a real commitment from each student-athlete to practice infection control.
“We have been abiding by it and that’s why we have not had an outbreak in our team. Everything is smooth so far. It’s also the team’s responsibility to know who to hang out with and avoid parties or big gatherings for example. Our team has been responsible and we have reaped the rewards of that by being able to play,” Nothhaft remarked.
Now, schools must adhere to federal, state, and local guidelines related to COVID-19 and players must follow enhanced safety measures, including
regular testing, separation of student-athletes and essential personnel from all other non-essential personnel, and physical distancing and masking policies during all aspects of non-competition.
“When we’re on the road, we are confined to the hotel but amenities such as the hotel gym and swimming pool were available to us all day. We don’t go out to restaurants either, the food is catered to the hotel as well.”
Baylor University men’s team began 2021 on Jan 15 with the announcement that the six-court Hawkins Indoor Tennis Center will be opened for members only, while the Hurd Tennis Center with 16 outdoor courts will be restricted to 25 percent capacity, and attendees will be admitted on a first-come, first-served basis. Fans in attendance are required to follow CDC guidelines, wearing masks at all times, and practicing social distance.
The Bears have now risen to No. 2 in the NCAA men’s team rankings following a string of good results with victories over No. 4 Michigan, No. 4 Texas A & M, and No. 5 Texas en route to reaching the final of the ITA National Indoor Championship.
That said, Nothhaft is working hard to break back into a Baylor line-up that currently features five players ranked in the top 75 – No. 43 Sven Lah, No. 46 Adrian Boitan, No. 56 Matias Soto, No. 66 Constantin Frantzen, and No. 74 Nick Stachowiak.
Related Story: No. 2 Bears sweep UT Arlington (Baylor Lariat, 24 Feb 2021)
College tennis is a unique experience, especially when student-athletes are aiming to perform at the highest levels both on the tennis court and in the classroom. “In college, you’re playing as a team, whereas if I was back home I’m kind of playing more for myself, so college is definitely bigger picture, learning about team culture, and appreciating the competition. It’s good for me, it’s been really good for my tennis, pushing me to my limits, making me more mature and helping me grow alongside other talented players,” Nothhaft elaborated.
“It is challenging too because time management is definitely important and something that you need to develop because they start early. I mean we lift 6:30, 7 o’clock in the morning, then I have classes until around one and then I train from 2:30-5:00pm and then I have homework, so planning is everything.”
“Being in college and playing tennis is a great opportunity and I’m glad I made the right choice. College tennis is about building character, becoming mentally tough, learning how to be more competitive. Out there, only the toughest team wins championships,” added Nothhaft.
For the latest news on the Baylor men’s tennis team all season long, follow their official Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts: @BaylorMTennis.
Elsewhere, southpaw Kyle Tang is playing college ball at the University of Louisville where he is coming in as a freshman. “I was at the M15 Tunisia last February when the pandemic broke out. I went back to Barcelona, where I had been training for 3 years, but then the city got locked down and no one was allowed to do anything outdoors. I was locked in the academy (inside the building) for about 8 weeks!”
After finishing high school and spending part of the summer in Hong Kong, Tang finally departed for Louisville and was able to meet his teammates following a 14-day quarantine upon his arrival. “I’m very excited to be able to play college tennis and my team is very strong. We practice about 3.5 hour everyday plus fitness. However, there is a strict COVID-19 policy and social distancing measures in place,” explains Tang.
“Athletes are required to get tested twice a week but it’s always at 7am! In that first semester, we even had to wear a mask during practice, but I am happy that I decided to come despite the COVID-19 situation in the US. Some classes are online, but the rest are in-person. The only real downside is there aren’t that many activities we can participate under social distancing restrictions, so my teammates are essentially my buddies, as we live, practice and travel together.”
During the Christmas break, Tang was by myself training at one of the tennis academies in Florida for six weeks. He decided not to come home for the holidays because it was just not worth the time when considering the 2-week quarantine on his return to Hong Kong and another 2-week iso when he lands back in the States.
“Our team chartered a coach for travelling on the road in order to minimize outside contact. Sometimes, it’s a 7 to 8-hour drive to another city, so we just do our homework and relax on the bus. We also have very strict eating arrangements, but the coaching staff is working very hard to help keep everyone safe and healthy and be able to travel for matches.”
“My biggest wish for 2021 is to see the pandemic situation slow down so that our lives can go back to normal. I miss my family and my friends in Barcelona and I am really looking forward to seeing them and to see regular competition back on the tours again,” said Tang.
Tennishk.org also talked to former Hong Kong junior No. 1, Martin Sayer, who is the Assistant Men’s Coach at DI Virginia Tech, a position he has held since 2016. Born in Hong Kong, Sayer took the under-14 boys’ team to the WJT Finals and was ranked as high as No. 25 on the ITF Junior Circuit. He represented Hong Kong at the All China Games in 2009, Asian Games in 2010, and the Davis Cup in 2005-2006 and 2008-2011. Entering Fall 2005 with a DI preseason ranking of No. 113 at Radford University, Sayer shot to No. 17 overnight after he beat four seeded players, including NCAA No. 2 Ludovic Walter (Duke), en route to becoming Co-Champion of the ITA Mideast Regionals. He also came in a close second to Matt Bruch (Stanford) in the ballot for ITA National Rookie of the Year in 2006.
“We get a PCR test 72 hours before competition and we must return a negative test. We get tested from 6-8am and the tests get driven to the testing center and the results come back either that night or next morning,” said Coach Sayer.
“As coaches, we wear masks all the time on the court, but the players can take them off when they are playing. When we travel in a 12-seater van, we can only put the driver and 4 other players in it. We cannot eat out at restaurants, we have to get it to go and eat it outside or at the hotel. Interaction between teams are kept at a minimum. We can’t even sit on the same bench as our opponents and we have hand sanitizers all over the tennis center,” he added.
“We have to take our temperature when we reach the tennis facility and read 99 Fahrenheit and below. Teams that are not in the ACC that we play must pass a PCR test and follow ACC’s COVID-19 guidelines. I must have been tested over 30 times by now!” said Sayer.
Meanwhile, Jenny Wong, who led a WJT and a JFC team to the World Finals together with Cody Wong in 2016 and 2018 respectively, is headed to the Ivy League. “I am going to be playing college tennis at Cornell but I will be joining them at a later date. I’m with a study away program offered by the university, so I’ll be staying in Zhejiang with several other freshman while taking Zoom courses.”
For the Ivy League, there will not be a conference season or conference postseason for tennis, due to the ongoing impacts of the pandemic, it was announced on Feb 18. However, training opportunities for enrolled student-athletes are allowed in accordance with the protocol implemented earlier by the Ivy League, where phase one allows groups of up to 10 athletes to meet up and practice for up to one hour a day, while only virtual team meetings are permitted in phase zero.
The Ivies is currently the only Division I league abstaining from competitive play, having canceled its winter and spring seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“They are really strict about COVID and they’re getting tested twice a week and only athletes that passed the test can train for a few hours per week. They started from zero training to only gym work and then now they can practice normally for one hour of tennis per day,” said Wong.
“For me, I miss it sometimes but I’m really enjoying college life even without tennis. There are some really fun student clubs I joined and lots of other stuff going on as well, but of course I am looking forward to playing college tennis!” she added.
Former Fed Cupper, Geraldine Leong, who won the under-18 (2006), under-16 (2004 & 2005), and under-14 (2003) titles at the Hong Kong National Junior Tennis Championships and a member of the Junior Fed Cup team that qualified for the World Finals in 2006, also played collegiate tennis at Cornell for the 2009-2010 and 2010-2011 seasons.
Related Story: Women’s Tennis Welcomes Two for 2020-21 Season
Meanwhile, Kara Lin, winner of the Hong Kong National Tennis Championships 2019 and a member of the WJT side that netted Hong Kong a place in the World Finals for the first time in 2016, was accepted to Brigham Young University on a full ride and she has been in Provo, Utah since August getting ready for college tennis.
“We’re tested once a week and have to wear a mask when we are not competing on court. We’ve also not had fans for our home games yet but the experience thus far is nothing but positive energy playing as a team and everyone is more optimistic,” said Lin.
BYU is currently undefeated at home at 3-0 and 7-4 overall, with Lin starting anywhere from No. 1 to No. 4 in singles and prominently in doubles for the Cougars. The Hong Kong native’s record so far is 4-4 in singles and 7-2 in doubles.
Teams in the NCAA have been identified and categorized according to contact risk levels. For instance, bowling, diving, equestrian, fencing, golf, rifle, skiing, and tennis are considered by the NCAA as ‘low contact risk’, while basketball, field hockey, football, rugby, soccer, squash, volleyball, water polo, wrestling are deemed ‘high contact risk’.
Over the years, there have only been a handful of DI All-Americans from Hong Kong – Patricia Hy (UCLA, Singles), John Hui (Pepperdine, Doubles), Brian Hung (Michigan, Doubles), Venise Chan (Washington, Singles twice & Doubles), Jackie Tang (Columbia, Doubles) and Katherine Ip (Rice, Singles).
Each year the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) recognizes All-America honors by the following selection criteria (NCAA Division I):
– seeded in NCAA Singles Championships, or
– reach round of 16 in NCAA Singles Championships, or
– finish in the Top 20 in singles of the final ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings.
– seeded in NCAA Doubles Championships, or
– reach quarterfinals in NCAA Doubles Championships, or
– finish in the Top 10 in doubles of the final ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings.
In 1984, Patricia Hy (UCLA) finished the season ranked No. 17 in the final HEAD Intercollegiate Rankings.
In 1999, John Hui and Kelly Gullet (Pepperdine) came from a set down to beat No. 2 seed James Blake and Kunj Majmudar (Harvard), 3-6, 6-4, 6-4, in the last sixteen of the NCAA Championships to cement his All-America in doubles. Blake and Majmudar won the ITA All-American Championships in 1998 and was the nation’s top-ranked tandem. At the end of his sophomore season in 1999, Blake was ranked No. 1 in singles and named Tennis Magazine/ITA National Player of the Year. He turned pro straight away and had a very successful career on the ATP Tour, reaching No. 4 in the world and winning the Davis Cup in 2007 together with Andy Roddick and the Bryan Brothers.
In 2007, Brian Hung and Matko Maravich (Michigan) finished runner-up to John Isner and Luis Flores (Georgia) at the ITA Men’s All-American Championships and were the No. 2 seed at ITA National Intercollegiate Indoors. However, the Michigan duo needed a last gasp tie for 10th in the final ITA Collegiate Tennis Rankings in order to secure the All-America in doubles. Their average of 32.33 tied with Eric Claesson and Erling Tveit (Mississippi), which just beat out Philipp Gruendler and Benjamin Kohlloeffel’s (UCLA) 29.92 by a whisker.
In singles, Venise Chan (Washington) finished at No. 15 and No. 17 respectively on the final 2010 and 2011 ITA DI Women’s National Singles Rankings. In singles, she was also seeded and reached the round of sixteen at the 2011 NCAAs. In doubles, she was ranked No. 9 on the final rankings and reached the quarterfinals at the 2011 NCAAs.
In 2016, Katherine Ip (Rice) beat 4th-ranked Brooke Austin (Florida), 6-4, 5-7, 6-4, en route to the last sixteen of the women’s singles at the NCAA Championships to earn her All-America stripes.
In 2020, Jackie Tang earned All-America honors after winning a national doubles title at the 2019 ITA All-American Championships in October with partner Jack Lin. The duo also reached No.3 on the Oracle/ITA Division I Double Rankings.
This year’s, the NCAA Championships is scheduled to take place at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona, Florida, from May 16-28, 2021.