Tennis: Hear ye and have a ball of a time

Hung Kee Seng about to return to Ong Hock Bee in the B1 final of the first National Soundball Tournament yesterday. Ong won 4-0. Players locate the ball by the rattling sound it makes.
Hung Kee Seng about to return to Ong Hock Bee in the B1 final of the first National Soundball Tournament yesterday. Ong won 4-0. Players locate the ball by the rattling sound it makes.ST PHOTO: ALPHONSUS CHERN

Like most sports fans, Ong Hock Bee follows tennis and football matches live on television.

But it is not his eyes that are trained on the screen when a live tennis match is ongoing; instead, it is his ears that are the most alert.

The 51-year-old is blind, and has relied on hearing the sound of the tennis ball being hit to keep up with the match action for over 15 years. And keen concentration is crucial when long rallies take place. And so keen is his sense of hearing that audio cues can help him identify players.

"When Rafael Nadal plays, he grunts, whereas Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer are quite quiet. So I know roughly who the players are based on that," he said.

It is this heightened sense of hearing and concentration that led Ong to victory in the B1 category of the inaugural National Soundball Tournament at Bukit Timah yesterday.

Soundball is a sport for the visually impaired similar to tennis, and is played indoors using sponge balls that rattle when bounced so that they can be located by hearing.

Those in the B1 category are fully blind, and are allowed three bounces of the ball before hitting it.

Said Ong, who was born partially blind but lost his sight completely at age 27 due to retinal detachment: "The first bounce indicates where the ball is landing, and the second and third bounces prepare us to hit the ball - that's where we need a lot of training ... it took me at least two years to get used to it."

Ong, who played goalball in last year's Asean Para Games, started playing soundball in 2011. He will likely represent Singapore at next year's International Blind Tennis Tournament in London, together with Marc Chiang and Jessen Ng, who won the B2 and B3 (for the partially sighted) categories at yesterday's competition.

Soundball Singapore's co-founder Kenneth Ng hopes to establish a national disability sports association for the sport by next year.

Said Ng, who started the non-profit organisation in 2011: "Our players have played friendly matches in Japan and the UK and built their skills set, and I wouldn't be surprised that, if soundball becomes a Paralympic sport, we will win a medal for Singapore."

Singapore Disability Sports Council (SDSC) president Kevin Wong, who was present at yesterday's prize-giving ceremony, said the SDSC would be happy to help with paperwork and dispensing advice, adding: "If the region develops together, there will be more competitions, so that's something I will encourage and help them with."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 06, 2016, with the headline 'Hear ye and have a ball of a time'. Print Edition | Subscribe