A US$2 million grant from the government could be the first step towards the city boasting a bigger venue to host major tournaments, a top official said as Hong Kong bought its way back on to the world circuit by tying up with the Women's Tennis Association to stage an international event in September 2014 at Victoria Park.
Home Affairs Bureau deputy secretary Jonathan McKinley confirmed that US$2 million had been given to the Hong Kong Tennis Association, which has struck a deal with the world governing body of women's tennis to stage a WTA Tier III tournament the week after next year's US Open.
It is understood that the government had even been willing to support a men's professional tournament, but had to settle for a WTA event because of the unavailability of an ATP licence on the market. Hong Kong will officially own the women's tournament, which has been held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia since 2010.
"We have given the Hong Kong Tennis Association US$2 million and they have bought the licence for this tournament. We were lucky to get this event," McKinley said. "There was nothing available on the ATP circuit."
It is the first step towards reclaiming Hong Kong's position on the world circuit. The last time Hong Kong held a professional tournament was in 2002 when the Salem Open ended a 13-year relationship after the licence-holder - a private company - opted to move to Beijing. The move was hastened by the government introducing legislation against tobacco advertising.
"I am really excited about the WTA tournament that is coming to Hong Kong in 2014. It will put Hong Kong back on the world map of tennis and we are very grateful to the government for paving the way," said Vincent Liang, HKTA president.
In addition to the US$2 million grant to purchase the licence, the government will also put up US$250,000 towards prize money for the tournament, which will be a 32-strong draw plus a 24-strong qualifying draw.
According to McKinley, this will be the first step towards turning Hong Kong into a major stopover for professional tennis.
He said: "If this tournament is successful, we will consider looking at building a bigger venue than the one at Victoria Park ... but first we have to see how well this event is received by the public."
Even though the government had hoped to get an ATP tournament, the capacity and constraints of Victoria Park would have prevented the HKTA from hosting a men's event. The smallest ATP tournament would need to be held in a stadium with a capacity of at least 5,000 seats. Victoria Park's centre court can hold 3,600 spectators.
The tournament is guaranteed one player from the world's top 10 - China's Li Na has already expressed interest in competing - but if the HKTA can raise additional prize money or pay appearance fees, Hong Kong could attract a better field.
"It is up to the HKTA to try and raise more funds. We have given them the initial push," McKinley said.
In addition to raising the profile of the sport in Hong Kong, the tournament will also give local players an opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the world's best at home.
"The 2014 event will give many of our players the chance to play against the best. Apart from top juniors playing in the qualifying rounds, we will also be offering wild cards into the main draw to our senior players like Tiffany Wu, Venise Chan and Zhang Ling. Hopefully it will raise our competition level and help us one day win our place back as an elite sport in the Hong Kong Sports Institute," said Herbert Chow Siu-lung, chairman of the HKTA's player development council.
[Correction: The headline in an earlier version said the grant was HK$2 million. It is US$2 million.]