Wild card held for Sampras
By NAZVI CAREEM
ORGANISERS of this year's Salem Open will be furiously waving two wilds cards to attract the attentions of world number one Pete Sampras and Germany's Michael Stich and Boris Becker.
Defending champion Sampras, who took over the number one spot on the eve of the Hong Kong tournament last year, has not entered next month's US$320,000 event, which is headed by Americans Michael Chang, ranked eighth, and the 19th-ranked Ivan Lendl.
But the 22-year-old Wimbledon, United States and Australian Open champion will be competing in the Osaka tournament, a week prior to the Hong Kong event from April 11-17 at Victoria Park.
Pros are urged by the Association of Tennis Professionals to defend points won at a tournament.
But Sampras currently has a 1,479 lead over world number two Stich in the rankings, and he may not be too worried about losing the points from Hong Kong.
And with the French Open looming, Sampras may prefer the Nice tournament during the same week, where the clay courts will be better suited to his preparations for Roland Garros.
Sampras will be attempting to win his fourth straight Grand Slam tournament in France.
Said tournament director David Baukol: ''We did try to get Sampras. We kept telling his agent that it would be good for him to defend his points.
''We are holding on to these two wild cards. He will be in the region at the time and he may want to take us up on it. Becker may be tempted as well.
''But the problem with Sampras is that he is very keen to win the full set of all four Grand Slams. Nice is a clay tournament and he may want to play there instead.'' Sampras won 120 ranking points after his thrilling three-set final victory last year over compatriot Jim Courier, whom he replaced as the world number one.
However, this year's tournament will offer 140 ranking points for the winner. The runner-up earns 120 points with 60 points awarded to each semi-finalist.
One main-draw wild card has already gone to South Korea's Chang Eui-jong, who earned his place by winning last year's Salem Asian Championships in Hong Kong.
American Chang returns for a fifth attempt at the title that has always eluded him while Lendl returns to the place where his brilliant career originally took off.
He has already two titles under his belt this season, winning in Indonesia and at the US Indoor event.
Lendl won his first world-ranking tournament in Hong Kong in 1980. Although he has regularly returned for exhibitions, this will be only his second sanctioned tournament in the territory.
Also confirmed for the event are American Brad Gilbert (ranked 26), Frenchman Guy Forget, who has a ''protected'' ranking of 28, Jonathan Stark, of America, and in-form Australian Patrick Rafter.
Forget's ranking was protected by the ATP during a recent injury and his ranking-points were based on an average taken over the first six months of his recovery period.
Stark finished in the world's top 50 for the first time last year and is currently ranked 36.
He is also ranked number two in the world, along with Zimbabwe's Byron Black, in doubles.
Canadian Greg Rusedski will be on familiar territory in Hong Kong. He has performed well in other Asian tournaments, reaching the quarter-finals of Osaka last year, defeating Wayne Ferreira, Richard Krajicek and Chang on the way.
He was beaten by Chang in last year's Beijing Open final.
The 32-man draw will have 25 automatic entries based on world-rankings, three wild cards and four qualifiers.
The qualifying competition will take place on April 9 and 10 with the Hong Kong Tennis Association given two qualifying wild cards and another wild card has been given to China.
The HKTA have received a doubles wild card.
Baukol said the tournament's attraction to fans will be increased by more off-court entertaining as Hong Kong tries to revive the sport's battered image as a boring spectacle.
''We plan a few things to entertain the crowd in between matches,'' he said.
The winner wins US$42,600 in prize money while the runner-up earns US$24.930.
First-round losers pick up US$3,070 and the doubles winners receive US$18,250 to be shared between them.
Line-up (nationality and rankings in brackets): Michael Chang (US, eight), Ivan Lendl (US, 19), Brad Gilbert (US, 26), Guy Forget (France, 28), Amos Mansdorf (Israel, 33), Jonathan Stark (US, 36), Aaron Krickstein (US, 38), Patrick Rafter (Australia, 49),Greg Rusedski (Canada, 53), Thomas Enqvist (Sweden, 55), Brett Steven (New Zealand, 63), Javier Frana (Argentina, 65), Andrei Olhovskiy (Russia, 67), Martin Damm (Czech Republic, 70), Jamie Morgan (Australia, 72), Guillaume Raoux (France, 75), Chuck Adams (US, 77), Jonas Bjorkman (Sweden, 86), Stephane Simian (France, 87), David Wheaton (US, 88), Alex Antonitsch (Austria, 93), Omar Camporese (Italy, 95), Byron Black (Zimbabwe, 96).