Star-studded Challenge under threat

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 August, 2005, 12:00am

Application for $3 million grant rejected because HKTA didn't give its blessing to the showpiece

The dream of watching glamorous world number one Maria Sharapova in action in January is in doubt after the Hong Kong Tennis Association (HKTA) refused to sanction the annual Watsons Water Champions Challenge.

Organisers of the exhibition event, the Hong Kong Tennis Patrons Association (HKTPA), have run into an obstacle after their application for a $3 million grant from the government's Sports Commission was not approved because the HKTA hadn't given its blessing.

'We have received a letter from the Hong Kong Tennis Association saying it will not sanction the HKTPA's event to be held in early next year,' said Herman Hu, chairman of the Commission's major sports events committee, yesterday.

'It is a pity that we have come across such a situation. Our aim is enhance Hong Kong's image as Asia's sports event capital and to achieve this we have to encourage more top class sporting events in Hong Kong so that the fans can enjoy watching the events,' said Hu.

It is learned that the HKTA had refused to give its endorsement because it wants government funds diverted towards an ambitious bid - still in the early stages - to bring back a world-ranking professional tournament, men's or women's, in the near future.

Russian ace Sharapova, who headlined this year's event along with five others in the top 10, was due to return to Hong Kong once again in early January at Victoria Park.

Co-tournament director and HKTPA spokesman Brian Catton, who revealed that Sharapova, who is the top seed for US Open, which starts on Monday, has been targeted once again, said the current impasse was just a 'blip' and said he was confident a compromise could be reached.

'The Tennis Patrons Association and the Hong Kong Tennis Association have worked together for over 30 years and I'm confident that a blip like this can be overcome. We still think the way is open for a compromise to be reached,' Catton said.

'It is in the general interest of all parties to have an official ranking tournament in Hong Kong and we are all striving towards that target. But finding a ranking tournament, either the ATP [men's] or WTA [women's] is not easy due to a number of factors.

'Hong Kong can get a tier three ranking event but that won't attract the big name players and we all know that Hong Kong fans want the stars. The Challenge event fits the bill perfectly. This year we had six of the world's top 11 players and that was a tremendous achievement. But to do this, we need the money and that is why we have asked the Sports Commission for funds,' explained Catton.

Hu hoped the impasse would be solved amicably.

'We have a mechanism to assess the proposal from applicants and it stipulates that sanction from the national governing body concerned is required for the application. I hope the two organisations [HKTA and HKTPA] can sort out between themselves before our next meeting next month,' Hu said.

Since the Sports Commission was set up early this year, all major sporting events need to get the approval if government funds are required.

'The women's challenge event has a good track record and should have been able to continue, with or without support from the committee, or tennis fans will be deprived of the opportunity to watch some of the world's best players,' said Hu.

The cost of staging the Challenge event has been estimated at between $10 million and $15 million.

'In the worst case scenario, we can run the event without the sanction of the Tennis Association. But this is not the issue.

'We have worked with the association for a long time and I'm sure this matter can be resolved,' said Catton.

Russian Elena Dementieva defeated Venus Williams to win this year's tournament.

Sharapova pulled out with a stomach bug early in the event but she still proved a big hit when during the tsunami charity auction when her gear was sold for a record $520,000 - bought by Watsons chief Ian Wade.