WTA event organisers hope to bring Li Na to HK tournament
Approach has been made to bring China's grand slam winner to HK's first professional tournament since 2002 in September
Australian Open champion Li Na is being wooed to headline Hong Kong's return to the world of professional tennis in September - in the WTA Championship at Victoria Park.
"We have approached her and made her an offer," said tournament director Stephen Duckitt of China's world number three. "I spoke to her agent in the first week of the Australian Open in Melbourne and said Hong Kong was keen to have her at our tournament. We hope she will agree but if that doesn't happen, it is not the end of the world."
The city will welcome back a professional tournament after over a decade without one. The new Women's Tennis Association International Series event was won with a HK$15.5 million government grant last year. Run by the Hong Kong Tennis Association, the 32-draw singles event (doubles will feature too) will be played for a purse of US$250,000 from September 8-14.
However, Duckitt warned fans not to expect the moon in the first year, with the odds all stacked against mainland star Li - who could reach a career-high world number two ranking next week - making an appearance since the local event follows hot on the heels of the US Open.
"As a top player, Li will be expected to advance to the final stages of the US Open, which ends on the Sunday our tournament [qualifiers] begin," Duckitt said. "It would be a stretch of the imagination to hope that if she reaches the latter stages [in the US] that she will turn up in Hong Kong in a couple of days. Yet, we have approached her as we know she will be a drawcard." After a foot inflammation caused current world number two Victoria Azarenka to withdrawal from the Qatar Open, starting today, Li needs a mere nine ranking points from the event to climb above the Belarussian in the rankings.
The Hong Kong event can only field one player from the world's top 10 from the 2013 year-end rankings (Li was No 3 then, too) - unless it is willing to double the prize money to US$500,000, which would permit a second top player to be booked. Organisers are also looking at Czech Petra Kvitova (world No 6), Serbian Jelena Jankovic (No 8) and Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark (No 10).
"I travelled to the WTA tournament in Auckland and to the Australian Open in January this year to talk with a number of players and agents to encourage them to play the tournament and also promote Hong Kong as a great global city," said Duckitt, a former ATP official. "These discussions included players from within the top 10 The discussions were positive and there is a sense of excitement among the players about being able to come to Hong Kong and play.
"It is a tough week in the calendar as it is the week following the US Open and the top players are usually always competing towards the final week of a grand slam. The need for rest plays a big part in their decision making regardless of the financial incentive to play."
It is understood that Li, who won her second grand slam title in January, now commands an appearance fee of around US$400,000 to turn up in events, which are not mandatory for her to participate in.
She will turn up next month in the BNP Paribas Showdown, a one-day exhibition event, at Hong Kong's cycling velodrome. Part of World Tennis Day, the March 3 event will feature Li playing against Sam Stosur of Australia, while the men's match will be between Australian Lleyton Hewitt and Tomas Berdych of the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, organisers of the WTA event have launched a logo design competition with a HK$20,000 prize for the winner.
Duckitt said: "We are excited about the return of a WTA tournament to Hong Kong - [it's] the first time since 1993 and the last time there was a Tour level event [the ATP Hong Kong Open] was in 2002. The exhibition events have always helped keep tennis in the public vision, but our hope now is that this tournament re-energises the popularity of the sport, and can begin creating an inspirational pathway for up and coming players."