Wednesday February 6, 2013
Willy Chang shares his passion for tennis
By GRACE CHEN
Willy Chang is just as passionate about tennis as he was when he started coaching a group of ball boys 25 years ago.
IT was 1963 and Willy Chang, then a clerk at the Ministry of Defence, had just submitted his application to be a member of the Port Dickson Yacht Club. When the membership was approved, Chang was overjoyed. Finally, he could pursue his life-long dream to play tennis.
The second child in a family of eight children, Chang had grown up in Port Dickson during the pre-war years. He was only nine when he started work as a bat boy for a Japanese officer, polishing boots and bringing the morning tea. Chang remembers vividly the deep notches on the handle of his employer’s samurai sword.
“I did not speak Japanese and he neither spoke Malay nor English. But through sign language, I was made to understand they stood for the number of people he had killed,” recalls Chang, 79, who says the house, albeit in ruins, still exists at 3½ mile Jalan Pantai, Port Dickson.
Chang remembers watching the British officers playing tennis. There were locals like him who were dying to hit the ball, but had no chance.
“During the pre-independence years, only the British had access to a club,” recalls Chang.
So, when the chance came, Chang immersed himself in his new hobby. He read and attended courses to better his game. In the midst of it all, he could not help noticing the 10 to 20 ball boys who worked at the club. Like him, they too longed to try their hand at the game and Chang knew how they felt.
“Perhaps I could teach them to play,” he thought to himself.
Chang knew some of them came from poor backgrounds. It dawned on him that perhaps tennis would be a way for them to make something of themselves. There were lessons to be learned on sportsmanship and discipline.
Chang realised there would be no chance for them to learn the game without help, and decided to teach them himself.
“I started coaching in 1981 before I retired from the Ministry of Defence in 1986. I prepared myself by taking the US Professional Tennis Registry course in Singapore and gave lessons on Saturdays,” says Chang. “Initially, all the ball boys were given free lessons but after four or five years, I realised people tend not to appreciate things when they don’t have to pay for it. So a nominal fee of RM3 was charged.”
It was not easy dealing with the ball boys who were prone to fighting. There were times when Chang had to call in his wife, Lilian, a Eurasian beauty of Chinese and Irish descent. Her presence ensured the boys toed the line.
“Talent must be worked on. There were some children who wanted their own way. In my court, the rule is: I coach, you listen,” explains Chang who maintains a zero-nonsense policy with his charges.
To ensure the ball boys could also take part in the Port Dickson Tennis Open, Chang took it upon himself to find sponsors for their entrance fees.
This did not bode well with some quarters who thought Chang was soliciting funds for himself. It did not help that some of the boys, on receiving their sponsored racquets, sold them for pocket money.
“They’d say they had left their racquets in a taxi but I knew better. Some of these boys were so poor, they would resort to any means,” sighs Chang.
Despite the odds, Chang was ready to put forward his star player by 1987. The candidate, an 18-year-old, was none other than V. Selvam, former Davis Cup player and founder of the first tennis academy in Malaysia. Since then, Selvam, 42, has won the PD Open men’s singles 17 times.
Twenty-five years on, Chang has yet to relinquish his position as the club’s tennis coach. For his dedication, Chang was awarded a Vocational Award by the Rotary Club in 1994.
This was followed by a heart-warming show of appreciation from three former students, V. Selvam, R. Ramachadran and Randhir Singh, who presented him with a Lifetime Achievement plaque and a cash gift of RM300 at the 41st PD Open.
In 2007, Chang was invited to the Palace of the Golden Horses in Kuala Lumpur to receive the National Sports Award for his contribution to tennis. Chang was spurred to take on the challenge, thanks to his own struggles with adversity.
“I was educated at the Chong Wah Chinese School up till Standard 8. My studies were disrupted during the Japanese Occupation which lasted from 1942 to 1945 and I did not get to go back to school till I was 13. By then, I was considered too old to be placed in the Standard 1 and 2 classes so I had to go to Standard 3 straight away. There was a lot of catching up to do, as I didn’t even know how to write,” recalls Chang.
If not for his teachers, Chang would not have been able to jump from Standard 3 to 5, and subsequently straight to Standard 7. Though he could not further his education after Standard 8 due to financial constraints, he was fortunate to have made the acquaintance of John Tidmash, a British army officer whom he had worked briefly for as a houseboy.
“The journey of life is not possible without the help of others. Without an English education, I would not have been considered for a job with the Ministry of Defence. But I was lucky to have learnt the language during my time with Tidmash who subsequently recommended me for the post,” says Chang.
Taking the ball boys under his wing was, as Chang puts it, a way of paying back for the kind deeds of his mentors.
As for choosing tennis as a way of reaching out to the group of young ball boys, Chang reckons he had been spurred by the love of the game and his eagerness to see more local participation.
Chang shows no signs of slowing down despite a stomach ailment which nearly floored him five years ago.
“I am going to continue for as long as I can,” says Chang.
An avid gardener, Chang brushes aside the notion that old people are better suited to a sedentary life.
“Old people are equally as ambitious. We still have dreams which we are keen to realise,” he says.
Speaking of his first love, Chang is eager to promote tennis among the younger generation. He feels young people today are too caught up with academic pursuits or too busy climbing the corporate ladder.
“They must never forget that regular exercise is important to mental and social development,” Chang stresses.
Though fitness centres offer everything from yoga to gym sessions, Chang points out that they can hardly be compared to outdoor games which offer wholesome benefits.
“Out in the open, you can feel the wind in your hair, the sun on your face, and enjoy the fresh air,” adds Chang.