Heart-throb Chang to serve up treat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 October, 2009, 12:00am

Michael Chang, the one-time Hong Kong tennis heart-throb, and former world number ones Stefan Edberg and Marat Safin will play at the Hong Kong Tennis Classic in January, thanks to the government's cash injection from the Mega Events Fund (MEF).

For the first time since the post-Sars tournament, the annual extravaganza at Victoria Park, from January 6 to 9, will feature men alongside some of the biggest names in the women's game, including Venus Williams and Maria Sharapova.

Organisers thanked the Hong Kong Tourism Commission's MEF for the transformation, saying the huge helping hand had allowed them to add an extra dimension next year. 'We had already signed the major female players, but it was only after we got the backing from the Mega Events Fund that we were able to go after the men and add an extra dimension to the tournament,' Terry Catton, tournament director of the Hong Kong Tennis Classic, said.

The tournament lost its title sponsor this year after JB Group, which came on board in 2008, pulled out of next year's event. It left the organisers, Hong Kong Tennis Patrons Association, looking for a backer.

They found it hard to find sponsors with sufficient funding because of the recession, and so applied to the government's HK$100 million MEF. Organisers have refused to say how much they had received, but it is understood that they asked for HK$5.5 million.

'We would have gone ahead, with or without the money from the Mega Events Fund. But this is the icing on the cake,' Ian Wade, president of the association, said. 'We must thank the visionary Hong Kong Government. They are criticised often, but their help will allow us to add another sparkling element.'

Haider Barma, vice-president of the association, added: 'If not for the government's support, we would have been unable to get this star-studded line-up.'

The Hong Kong Tennis Classic and the Louis Vuitton Hong Kong Trophy - a race featuring America's Cup-class yachts in the harbour next November - were the only two sports events among six events to receive a total of HK$25.2 million in funds from the MEF after the first round of applications.

Like this year's tournament, the Tennis Classic will be held in a team format, with four teams from Europe, Americas, Russia and Asia-Pacific.

Each team will comprise two women and a male player, with Americas, the defending champions, led by five-time Wimbledon champion Williams, Argentine number-one Gisela Dulko and Chang.

Team Europe comprises Denmark's world number four Caroline Wozniacki, world number-seven Victoria Azarenka of Belarus and Swede Edberg, a six-time grand-slam winner.

Sharapova, a favourite with fans in Hong Kong, will lead Team Russia, which will also include world number-nine Vera Zvonareva and former US Open-champion Safin.

China's number-two Zheng Jie will be at the helm of Team Asia- Pacific, which will also comprise Japanese number-one Ayumi Morita and Thai Paradorn Srichaphan, the first Asian to rank in the men's top 10.

The four teams will be drawn into a semi-final line-up, with the new format featuring women's and men's singles and a mixed-doubles match.

'We're thrilled by the quality of our field and our unique format, which we believe is a first. It should be highly competitive and a lot of fun,' Wade said.

Organisers have not fixed ticket prices, but hinted at a slight rise from this year when daily tickets ranged from HK$280 to HK$680.

'We have kept these prices for the last four years and there might be a modest increase. But nothing is decided yet,' Catton said.

Money talk

The amount of funding organisers of the Hong Kong Tennis Classic are thought to have requested: $5.5m