Annals of Excellence: WYK Tennis
From the 1960s to 1980s, over 2 decades, WYK had achieved long running success in intercollegiate tennis. From 1971 to 1981 in open play, the tennis championship was won every year. In the years proceeding and after this unbroken record, there were many Runners-ups and third place finishes.
The architect and coach of this successful program was Reverend Father Patrick J. Finneran.
Father Finnegan loved sports. While he would contribute to football and track and field, his passion was tennis. Under him, WYK tennis was developed from 1965.
Some of the players before I joined the team were Patrick Wong, Eddie Lo and Joseph Wong, with Patrick Wong as Captain. He and Eddie Lo anchored the team. I watched them played exhibition matches with visiting Wimbleton champions such as the Australian Ken Fletcher on our school courts. It was 1966.
Around June of the same year, Fr Finneran organized a “tournament”. I entered and was chosen with Thomas Kan for the school team when we came back in September. It was at least a year later that I realized that it was his method of recruiting.
He would watch everyone who played, even those just hitting a ball against the backboard. He would encourage them and then invite them for a tryout: a “tournament”, or play against others and not least, hitting the ball with him. He would test them and make his decision.
He did this before the end of the school year and the summer vacation. Almost all the players were from Form 4 to Form 6. Some of those selected would not return for the new term in September, going to other schools in Hong Kong after Form 5 or abroad. His work had to include contingency plans.
I joined the team in September, 1966 and played three seasons. Patrick Wong was captain that year and we were runners-up in the colony.
In the next season, 1967-8, everyone except me had left, mostly for US and Canada. I was captain with all 6 or 7 new players. We had all new players again in 1968-9. Nonetheless, we were runners-up that year again.
You can see Fr Finneran’s difficult task of rebuilding constantly, at the same time fielding a competitive team of six players plus two substitutes year after year. But that was his strength.
He spent a lot of time watching and thinking about the team. He would hit balls with the prospects, some of those might still be in Form 1 or 2. He assessed their skills and potential, not only physically but mentally: for tennis matches require toughness of mind. Once he told me, “ … you can beat better players at matches – just like me when I was young”.
The heydays of the championship years started after I had left, for Canada. Every year, he would write me, usually a Christmas card if the season was over by then, and gave me the results. Otherwise it would be a short letter. He rarely mentioned individual players, but always listed all the scores: <7-2 vs. KGV, 5-4 vs. HKI, 6-3 vs. DBS…> etc, recounting, probably by heart, the results of every match against the 8 to 10 schools every season.
From him, I learned that P.L. Chan, whom I met in his recruiting in June, 1969, led the team to first place in 1973-74. Like many others, he only stayed for one or two years. Kelvin Ng, whom I have never met, was brought up from Form 1. He was an exceptional player and top student, and captained WYK to several years of unbroken championships.
Those were the years when tennis underwent its major change. The wood racket was being replaced in material and size by metal, then graphite composites. Balls were hit harder, margin of error when strings and nylon collided better. The speed, reflex and agility of players escalated. Visiting my parents in Hong Kong almost every year from the mid 1970s to late 1980s, I saw him and the team, and noticed that he embraced and excelled with the transformation of the game.
In addition to recruiting, Fr Finneran did everything to help winning. New balls, the same brand for tournaments, would always be used at practice. Rackets were changed or provided, especially to beginners in Form 1 or 2. The two courts at WYK were cleaned and maintained, nets in good order. During the season, practices were held every Thursday after school, with all eight players attended. On match days Saturday mornings, unless you have an overwhelming reason (he accepted few), we would go to school as if on a school day, assembled around the telephone switchboard office and left together for the place of competition. We would not arrive tired, delayed by traffic, or at the wrong place, as there were a few venues.
We were competing for the top spot in my last year. Fr. Finneran and I would think about the upcoming match during the week. One day, early in the week, he dropped by my classroom, got me excused, and we talked while walking the corridors.
It was going to be close and tough against that strong team, we told each other. Suddenly I said, “We are playing them at CCC, Hong Kong side, and most players have never been there (I was there once). Let us practice there.” He saw the advantage immediately. So on Thursday, we got off class early, took taxi-ferry-taxi and were running and hitting on the same courts which we would go back and won on Saturday.
I think he used that method, and others a few times again, as long as he saw the edge it could bring to the team.
Fr. Finneran’s greatest gift to tennis in WYK was to bring the game to all the boys who were interested, from the first year they entered school. Many who tried would not make the team, but they learned and would enjoy tennis long after they left. Those who made the team had the best training in the colony at that time.
He would very seldom invite a developed player from another school to enroll in WYK to strengthen the team. Much as he desired to win, he wanted to field “our own”.