Strongest field ever sets the stage for super show

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 April, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 April, 1999, 12:00am

Five Grand Slam champions, two top-10 players, nine from the top 50 and no Pete Sampras to make an 11th-hour pullout. This year's Salem Open is shaping up to be one of the best ever.

Already, organisers of the 10th Salem Open have managed to attract a powerful field, the strongest since the event was first held in 1990.

Not only is the field strong, but the higher-ranked players who will do battle at Victoria Park are all proven crowd- pullers - former Wimbledon champion Richard Krajicek, the 1991 Salem champion, Patrick Rafter, the defending two-time US Open champion, Croatia's Goran Ivanisevic, 1998 Australian Open winner Petr Korda, three-time Wimbledon champion Boris Becker and, regular drawcard, Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open winner.

For the past two years, the event's potential to attract crowds has been hit by the withdrawal of world No. 1 Sampras, but Lincoln Venancio, of tournament promoter Spectrum, said the depth of this year's field made the tournament more resistant to last-minute pullouts.

'In the past, if a player like Sampras withdrew from the tournament, it would have been a big blow,' Venancio said. 'But this year there are so many good players. Even if there was a withdrawal, which I hope there won't be, the Hong Kong fans will still be able to see an excellent field.' Venancio expects the Hong Kong tournament to continue to be one of the main stops on the ATP Tour's Asian schedule.

The Tokyo tournament has traditionally been the jewel in the Asian crown, but Venancio said Hong Kong could one day rival its Japanese counterparts.

'A lot of players know about Hong Kong and enjoy playing here and it is getting to a stage where many players come to Asia just to play at Victoria Park. Some don't even stay for the Tokyo tournament,' he said.

This is also the first tournament since 1991 in which Chang, a first-round loser last year, is not one of the top four seeds. The three-time Hong Kong winner is currently ranked 40th in the world.

Injuries and lack of form has seen Chang struggle to win matches over the past year or so and he is likely to be seeded eighth at Victoria Park.

Instead, the player who won the 1991 event and the man Chang defeated in the 1994 and 1997 finals are favourites for the title.

Dutchman Krajicek ascended to a career-high fourth in the world after his brilliant victory at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne last month. It was the 17th title of his career, which started in earnest with his triumph in the second edition of the Salem Open.

Rafter was the underdog when he faced Chang in his two final appearances at Victoria Park. But since his defeat to the Chinese-American in 1997, Rafter has gone on to produce some of the best tennis of his life.

Months after the Salem Open, he won his first Grand Slam title, the US Open. He proved it was no fluke when he repeated the feat last year at Flushing Meadow.

He enters Victoria Park ranked fifth in the world and the probable second seed.

Krajicek and Rafter are not the only players who are capable of lifting the title. Ivanisevic, the 1998 Wimbledon runner-up, Frenchman Cedric Pioline, South African Wayne Ferreira and German Nicolas Kiefer are also expected to mount strong challenges.

Korda, despite languishing at 102 in the world, is a proven match-winner and Becker may reproduce in Hong Kong the magic that won him six Grand Slam titles.

And few would write off the chances of defending champion Kenneth Carlsen, who won his first-ever ATP Tour title last year at Victoria Park.