THE world's top two players, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, and local crowd favourite Michael Chang spearhead the strongest field ever assembled for a tennis tournament in Hongkong at next month's Salem Open.
Organisers announced the line-up yesterday for the US$300,000 event and the 23 players who gain direct entry into the 32-strong draw are all ranked in the world's top 88 on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) computer.
World number one Courier, number two Sampras and seventh-ranked Chang are joined in the line-up by their fellow American and fourth seed Brad Gilbert (ranked 30), Israel's Amos Mansdorf (37), Russian Andrei Cherkasov (41), New Zealand's Brett Steven (43),American David Wheaton (49) and Dutchman Jan Siemerink (50) from the world's top 50.
Also included are Danish teenager Kenneth Carlsen, who has risen 967 places in the past 12 months to number 51 on the ranking list, American Davis Cup player Jim Grabb, Japan's Shuzo Matsuoka and the Australian trio of Richard Fromberg, Todd Woodbridge and Sandon Stolle.
The event will be played at Victoria Park from April 12 to 18.
Tournament director Marcus Stapleton said: ''Last year we broke new ground by having the world's number one player in an official ranking tournament in Hongkong and this time we have another first with the number one and two in Courier and Sampras.
''The cut-off point on the computer for automatic entry was 88, making it the best field for a World Series event in Asia.'' A World Series tournament is fourth in line on the ATP Tour calendar in terms pf stature, with three such events allowed to take place in the same week.
The 23 players who gained direct entry will be joined by four from the qualifying tournament on April 10 and 11, two special exemptions and three wild cards.
One of the wild cards has been awarded to China's Xia Jiaping for winning the Asian Championship last year and another has been offered to Germany's world number four, Boris Becker.
Said Stapleton: ''Becker is playing in the Japan Open the week before and we will hold the wild card for him as long as possible. So far there has been no response.'' The special exemptions are available to players who cannot take part in the qualifying tournament because they are involved in the latter stages of another ATP Tour event. If this does not apply, the next two players on the ranking list will fill the places.
This will be the fourth Salem Open, with the roll of honour starting with Pat Cash in 1990, Richard Krajicek in 1991 and Courier last year.
John Scarritt, the vice-president and general manager of R. J. Reynolds Tobacco International (HK) Ltd, said: ''The success story of the tournament is further reinforced by its ever improving player entry list and this year is no exception.'' Entry list (with world ranking as of March 8): Jim Courier (US, 1); Pete Sampras (US, 2); Michael Chang (US, 7); Brad Gilbert (US, 30); Amos Mansdorf (Israel, 37); Andrei Cherkasov (Russia, 41); Brett Steven (NZ, 43); David Wheaton (US, 49); Jan Siemerink (Neth, 50); Kenneth Carlsen (Den, 51); Jim Grabb (US, 60); Jonathan Stark (US, 68); Patrik Kuhnen (Ger, 70); Ginluca Pozzi (Ita, 72); Guillaume Raoux (Fra, 74); Richard Fromberg (Aus, 75); Shuzo Matsuoka (Jap, 76); David Prinosil (Ger, 78); Stephane Simian (Fra, 81); Todd Woodbridge (Aus, 82); Sandon Stolle (Aus, 83); Jeremy Bates (GB, 84); Diego Nargiso (Italy, 87).