'I'm confident the Hong Kong Open will be one of the Grand Slam events'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 August, 2001, 12:00am

The feeling is mutual. Both squash sexes like being with each other. And expectant organisers and officials hope this week's cosy Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Men's and Women's Open will lead to the birth of four tennis-style Grand Slam events next year.

'Running both the men's and women's events together is a plus. It helps raise the profile of squash and also is a definite boost for promoters,' said Sarah Fitz-Gerald, world number three and president of WISPA, the women's world governing body.

'It is always good having women around,' said world number two Jonathon Power yesterday. However, the Canadian, bridesmaid at the last two Hong Kong Opens to champion Peter Nicol, should pray that the presence of the women will not sway his concentration.

For the first time in Hong Kong the world's top men and women players have come together. The two tours meet on very rare occasions - the most prestigious marriage being at the British Open. But there are plans now to create four Grand Slam events next year where both the men and women will play side by side.

New promoter Eye Group, which will underwrite both tours next year, hopes the Hong Kong Open, which starts today at the Squash Centre in Admiralty, will lay the groundwork for the future.

'From 2002, we will underwrite the Grand Prix Series for the professional men's and women's tours. This will comprise eight events on each tour finishing in a season-ending Grand Prix finals for the best performers. At key points in the season, the two tours will come together, and like tennis become a Grand Slam event. Hong Kong will be one such Grand Slam,' said Paul Gittings, Tour promoter, yesterday.

'We hope that in the future, the men's and women's Open will be run concurrently in Hong Kong. We picked this city because of its track record for excellent organisation. Hong Kong will be the Asian fulcrum. We are testing the water this year, but I'm confident that the Hong Kong Open will be one of the Grand Slam events next year,' added Gittings.

Eye Group, promoter of the British Open since 1999, recently signed up multi-million dollar deals with both the men's (PSA) and women's world governing bodies and will put in place a new Grand Prix structure with improved television and media coverage and more prize money and sponsorship. The plan is to make squash - for so long the poor cousin of tennis - into a major international sport.

'More live TV coverage can do no harm for squash. The more it is seen on TV the better,' said Nicol, the world number one. 'And having the women here is great too.' The last time Hong Kong hosted the women was way back in 1995 when the World Open was staged here.

Although still some way behind in prize money - the purse for the men's event has been increased from US$74,000 to US$100,000 this year while the women will share a purse of US$60,000 - Gittings believes when it comes to action on court, the women are on par with the guys.

'I thought this year's semi-final between Leilani Joyce and Sarah Fitz-Gerald was the best match at the British Open. The fact that we are having the men and women together again raises the media profile. You can't have it all the time, but it is great for a few selected tournaments,' said Gittings.

Hong Kong fans will agree. The value for money has been doubled. Last year they had to settle for only watching Nicol and the rest of the guys battling it out. This week the choice has been widened to include women's world number one Joyce and the rest of the women.