Start of something big for Hong Kong tennis
The sport's governing body must make the most of government's US$2m grant to stage a professional tournament here in 2014
The long wait for a fully sanctioned professional tennis tournament is over thanks to the government. It has coughed up US$2 million as a one-off grant to the Hong Kong Tennis Association to buy an event sanctioned by the Women's Tennis Association.
On March 10, Hong Kong will officially own a WTA tier-three international tournament - one of 29 around the world - which will offer prize money of US$235,000 and guarantees one top-10 player in the 32-strong main draw. So in September 2014, we could see the likes of Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams turning up. Li Na said she was keen to come.
No big deal, some critics might say, for Hong Kong has been a regular stopover for the world's top-ranked women players in the past at the now-defunct Hong Kong Tennis Classic. We have had not one big name, but rather a handful turn up for the tournament, which was run by private concerns in tandem with the Hong Kong Tennis Patrons Association.
Those people who might sniff at the HKTA's involvement after years on the sidelines may have a point, but there will be a huge difference between the events as the Classic was essentially an exhibition event while the HKTA will stage the real deal. Apart from the prize money, precious WTA ranking points will also be on offer, and if the HKTA can drum up corporate support, more than one top-10 player may turn up.
As the government's go-getter in charge of sports, Home Affairs Bureau deputy secretary Jonathan McKinley said it was up to the HKTA to find additional money so an attractive field can be assembled.
Hong Kong has always been a must-go destination for the top athletes, not only in tennis but also in badminton, table tennis, volleyball, cricket, rugby, squash and golf.
For once, this column is happy to acknowledge the constructive role played by the government. The 2014 tournament wouldn't have been possible without its generosity. In fact, Hong Kong might have been hosting a men's ATP tournament, "but there wasn't any available", according to McKinley. Thankfully, the licence-holder of the WTA event in Kuala Lumpur wanted to bail out, opening the door for Hong Kong. The last time a sanctioned tournament was held here was in 2002, when the Salem Open was smoking hot. But that event went north to the mainland when the sponsors pulled out due to anti-tobacco advertising legislation being passed. The licence-holder, a private party, moved it lock, stock and barrel to Beijing, which had just been awarded the 2008 Olympics.
Over the years, the major stumbling block had been the amount of money needed to buy back into the system. Corporate sponsors shut their purses, leaving only the government in a position to help. And kudos to it for doing so. .
More encouragingly, this could be the first step towards making Hong Kong a major tennis destination. According to McKinley, the government will gauge the success of the tournament in its first couple of years, and then consider enhancing the facilities at Victoria Park, which would enable the HKTA to look at bidding for an ATP event.
Another stumbling block for acquiring a top-quality tournament is facilities, including a centre court with at least 5,000 seats. Only 3,600 fans can be accommodated at Victoria Park. The fact the government is even considering the redevelopment of Victoria Park is a huge shot in the arm for the sport. The other big plus point is the game's governing body is back in charge.
While Hong Kong fans have to be grateful to the Tennis Patrons Association and other private parties for bankrolling the stars over the past decade, it is appropriate the HKTA should run the show. It is responsible for the game from grass roots to international level and it is only through hosting a successful, high-profile event that it can make a profit, which can then be ploughed back into the development of the game.
A good example is the Hong Kong Sevens. It is thanks to this iconic tournament that the Hong Kong Rugby Football Union has the money to spread its wings. The union has been able to develop grounds and facilities independent of government help, simply because of the huge profits it makes from the Sevens. This must be the goal of the HKTA, too. The government has given the initial push. Now it is up to the tennis authorities to make it a success.