New team contest for world aces in HK
Four of the most famous faces in the tennis world will lead their countries or regions in a new format revealed yesterday for Hong Kong's JB Group Classic in January.
The 'World Team Challenge' will feature Russia (led by Maria Sharapova), the Americas (Venus Williams), Europe (Jelena Jankovic) and Asia-Pacific (Sania Mirza).
Each team will consist of three players. There will be no prize money but the stars will be paid an appearance fee for the January 7-10 tournament at Victoria Park.
The eight remaining players will be announced later, although organisers confirmed a top player from China would also be on show.
'We have added a bold new dimension to the event,' Hong Kong Tennis Patrons' Association (TPA) president Ian Wade said yesterday. 'The players will not only be playing for themselves but also for their country and region. This will add an extra flavour to the competition.'
Serbia's world number one, Jankovic, will be appearing for the first time, but all eyes will be on the ever-popular Sharapova, the reigning Australian Open champion, and Williams, the 2008 Wimbledon champion.
'Players of this calibre have their pick of destinations on the world tennis calendar and we are proud Hong Kong remains near the top of their list of choices,' said JB Group's president of corporate management, Jatin Chutke.
Having come on board for this year's tournament - after the pull-out of long-time sponsor Watsons Water - Chutke gave the TPA a huge boost when he announced JB Group had signed on as title sponsor until 2010.
'They have been wonderful to us in these difficult times when we are living dangerously,' said Wade.
'But we have built a niche event which is famous around the world and this year I'm more excited than usual as we have an exciting format on offer,' he added. 'It will provide fans with an exciting team dynamic.'
In a bid to ensure every match is meaningful, the format will see each team of three players compete in two singles and a doubles along the lines of the Hopman Cup or the ATP World Team Cup.
'This will bring a more competitive edge to the event and it will reflect the enormous popularity of team events which we've seen at the Beijing Olympics and the annual Davis Cup and Federation Cup,' Chutke added.
Sharapova is nursing a shoulder injury, but organisers said they were confident she would be fit in time for the Victoria Park showpiece.
'We first brought Sharapova here when she was a nobody and we have been assured that she will be coming. We know she won't be playing competitively for the rest of the year but we are confident she will be okay by the time of the JB Group Classic,' Wade said.
Although TPA officials put on a brave face yesterday and revealed the financial crisis hadn't affected their tournament, it is believed the change in format had partly been the result of it.
Sources said that instead of bringing in eight big names, organisers could now focus on four big stars and fill the roster with lesser players.
Wade revealed that they would be securing some up-and-coming youngsters - 'we have a proud record of inviting unknowns like Sharapova who have gone on to be huge stars'.
Meanwhile, Leisure and Cultural Services Department officials yesterday pledged the renovation work at Victoria Park - being upgraded for the East Asian Games - would be completed in time for the event.