Left Field: Tobacco sponsor ban has hurt sports over the years
Legislation banning tobacco advertising was full of merit but it is sports, tennis in particular, that has paid the price
It was 32 years ago that Ivan Lendl's star began rising. And one of the first titles in his career - he won 147 including eight grand slams - was in Hong Kong where he defeated American Brian Teacher 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-3 in the final of a US$75,000 tournament at Victoria Park.
That was in the pre-ATP era. Lendl has fond memories, and harked back to that victory this week in a teleconference held by organisers of the BNP Paribas Showdown, which will come to Hong Kong next March. Lendl was quick to put his finger on the pulse by reminding us what makes Hong Kong tick.
Asked if he thought it was a pity that Hong Kong was not part of the ATP circuit any more, Lendl said: "It's a very complicated subject and you can look at it from two directions. If Hong Kong is on the ATP, then players will like it and enjoy it because Hong Kong is a fantastic city from what I remember. However, if you don't get the top-tier tournaments, then you are not going to get the top players."
The Czech-American, who will play John McEnroe in a pro-set exhibition match at the Hong Kong showdown on March 4 (the main highlight will be a three-set contest between Li Na and Caroline Wozniacki), was quick to boost the official line and said that until such time a proper tournament was held, Hong Kong would have to rely on "special events" to get its fix of stars.
It's sad that Hong Kong is reduced to this professional tennis penury. Lendl's victory in 1980 was a prelude to a golden era for the game in Hong Kong, not so much in its own accomplishments, but rather in hosting a top-class tournament annually. In 1990, the ATP first organised its worldwide tour for men and Hong Kong was soon part of it with the Salem Open coming on board.
We were guaranteed some of the best players of the time would turn up. The players loved coming here, as Lendl said. We watched everyone from McEnroe to Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras to Andre Agassi, Michael Chang to Stefan Edberg. The fans were spoilt for choice, but sadly no more.
In 2002, the Salem Open was held for the last time. It ended in an all-Spanish final with Juan Carlos Ferrero defeating Carlos Moya. The promoters of the tournament, who owned the licence, pulled out and left for the bright lights of the mainland. They were dazzled by the prospects of Beijing hosting the 2008 Olympics and the fact that Shanghai was also turning into a world-class city. But Hong Kong, too, played a part in slamming the door on the ATP event. The government had introduced an anti-smoking law banning the advertisement of the harmful weed during the late '90s and by 2002 the writing was on the wall for cigarette companies. Tennis was the worst hit as far as sports sponsorship was concerned, for apart from Salem, Marlboro was also backing is own championships at the time, giving Hong Kong a surfeit of big-name players.
When the smoke cleared, the sport had lost two sponsors with deep pockets and it was obvious that unless someone else stepped in, the tournaments, especially the Marlboro Championship, would not be able to attract top players who were given an appearance fee. As far as the Salem Open was concerned, it was assured of a couple of top-10 players, but with the promoters leaving town - and Salem pulling out due to the tobacco-advertising ban - that event also had a quick death.
There were calls from sports officials at the time for the government to fill the void. Among the suggestions was for the government to set up a sports lottery or put in place a tobacco levy. These calls were ignored.
The worst thing was the government's duplicity. Although it was widely recognised the tobacco-advertising ban was due to the harmful effects of smoking, the government never went as far as banning the sale of cigarettes, instead continuing to earn revenue from taxation.
Sport, especially tennis, paid the price. For the past decade, tennis fans have had to rely on special events like next March's showdown. While it will be good to see the likes of Lendl and McEnroe revive memories, this will hardly be competitive tennis. Even Lendl, 52, admitted it. The government has accepted the game needs help and has agreed to support the Hong Kong Tennis Association's bid for a small WTA tournament. But, as Lendl said, unless a top-tier tournament is held, Hong Kong will miss out on seeing the stars in action.