Double whammy leaves Hong Kong tennis fans wondering what will be served up in future
Top seed Elina Svitolina, already a last-minute replacement, and Caroline Wozniacki succumb to injuries, rubbing salt in open wounds
Is it the nature of tennis and more specifically the genuine physical demands of the WTA season, or is there something more Machiavellian at play here? Either way, it’s quickly becoming a familiar routine for Hong Kong tennis fans.
First, the build-up to our showpiece, elite-level, expensively assembled international tournament is littered with triumphant announcements of top-class players scheduled (with varying levels of commitment) to appear at the Hong Kong Tennis Open.
Then, as we edge towards the big launch there’s a smattering of withdrawals and replacements, before we line up with a competitive field – but looking little like the advertisements you might see in the Post or whizzing past on the side of the number 15 bus.
Still, we welcome the start of the tournament in high spirits because, well, it marks one of the precious few occasions when we have a bona fide world standard, professional sports event, and you’re little more than a curmudgeon if you refuse to enjoy that simply because we didn’t get the exact line-up we were initially promised.
However, four years into hosting our shiny new tournament, the realities of our “enviable” position on the WTA tour’s calendar are hitting home.
We’re told it’s a prime spot at the back end of the season schedule because players like to make money and valuable ranking points are up for grabs for the end-of-season WTA Finals in Singapore worth US$7 million for the top eight players, and the WTA Elite Trophy in Zhuhai, offering US$2.28 million, for the next 12.
By way of comparison, the prize money at the Hong Kong Open was raised to US$500,000 this season, up from US$250,000.
Though never officially acknowledged anywhere, the players value their shot at a share of those two prize funds over this one. It’s perfectly understandable. But that leaves an expectant, ticket-buying Hong Kong crowd often somewhat short-changed.
Nobody will have been happy with the entertainment they got in exchange for the price of admission to Thursday’s play.
A sore elbow damaged in practice that day was the reason. She was sorry, and thankful, and took selfies, and threw signed tennis balls but that was hardly worth the cost of a ticket.
Every year we are bombarded by players telling us how much they enjoy playing here in front of a great crowd, and by various WTA executives telling organisers that if they keep on developing and impressing, they could one day become a Premier level event. It’s beginning to ring hollow.
The ambitious Hong Kong Tennis Association steering committee wears its line-up like a badge of honour every year, but it’s increasingly apparent the roster can go out the window at short notice.
Would it not be better to put your faith in a not so stellar field of quality players who have motivations other than the Singapore and Zhuhai bonanzas?
Players such as China’s Wang Qiang, American Jennifer Brady and Japan’s Naomi Osaka have excelled in Hong Kong and were clearly motivated by the prospect of a maiden WTA win.
A sprinkling of star dust is fine, but do we need six of the top 25 in the world leaving us open to nervy late withdrawals?
Now all eyes will be on the end-of-season extravaganzas to see if those players who withdrew are miraculously fit enough to play there.
The likes of Sloane Stephens, whose first round losses in Wuhan and Beijing ahead of the Hong Kong Open meant that her slim chance of making the Singapore party went up in smoke, prompting the sudden announcement of an injury, which bizarrely wasn’t mentioned after her Beijing defeat. Or Kristina Mladenovic, who likewise saw first round defeats in Wuhan and Beijing put paid to her chances of making Singapore, before withdrawing from the running at Victoria Park.
Of course, it’s very possible these players genuinely suffered injuries severe enough for them to have to pull out at short notice.
Regardless, fans in Hong Kong have been left angered and upset, and perhaps less willing to return next year after pinning their hopes on the elite field they were promised.