Hong Kong's special love affair with Jennifer Capriati will continue next month when the American wonder-girl headlines an eight-strong international field at the Hong Kong Ladies Challenge at Victoria Park. Capriati, the WTA world number two who on Sunday was declared the women's world champion by the International Tennis Federation, returns for the third consecutive year much to the delight and relief of organisers, who have been hit by the unavailability of Swiss Miss Martina Hingis because of injury, and the withdrawal of the title sponsor. 'It is great that Jennifer is returning to Hong Kong. We love her for it was here in Hong Kong that she began her comeback. We really do deserve some credit for her resurgence,' said Colvin Brown, president of the Hong Kong Tennis Patrons Association, yesterday. The 24-year-old Capriati is the reigning Australian Open and French Open champion and is the big drawcard in the January 2-5 tournament, which also features two-time Grand Slam winner Mary Pierce of France, Russians Elena Dementieva and Lina Krasnoroutskaya, Amanda Coetzer of South Africa, Austria's Barbara Schett, Thailand's Tamarine Tanasugarn and Indonesia's Angelique Widjaja. The players will play a straight knockout competition and will also take part in a doubles competition. It was back in 2000 that Capriati accelerated her comeback from injury and a well-documented burnout. Coming to Hong Kong ranked 23rd, she then announced that she was determined to get back into the world's top 10 by the year end. She won the Hong Kong exhibition, beating Hingis in the final, and then went on to the Australian Open where she lost in the semi-finals. That was the start of her meteoric rise up the rankings. Today, almost two years later, she has won two Grand Slam titles and is ranked number two behind fellow-American Lindsay Davenport after briefly holding the top spot for a couple of weeks. 'Two years ago, her mother said watch out for her. She had faith in her daughter. We all now know how true she was. It all began here in Hong Kong and we are pleased to welcome her back as a champion,' Brown said. The tough times has predictably seen belt-tightening among organisers of the popular women's event with the TPA revealing yesterday that it had been working within a tight budget to attract Capriati and company. Organisers said the tournament budget was 'considerable' with a large part of that sum going to appearance fees for the players, especially Capriati. There is no prize money on offer. 'We had to strike a balance in going after the players. We first approached the agents to find out who was available and then we invited them. We have had to operate on a tight budget this time,' Brown said. Hingis was keen to come to Hong Kong. But she injured her ankle in October and has been forced to cancel her plans, according to the organisers. 'She had an operation in October and the initial prognosis was that she would be out for eight weeks, but now it seems to have been extended. We even don't know if she will be playing in the Australia Open next month,' co-tournament director Terry Catton said. After ending a 10-year relationship with Marlboro in 1997 - the cigarette company apparently pulled out of sponsoring Hong Kong's richest exhibition event held every October because of the government's anti-tobacco advertising legislation - the TPA decided to hold a women's exhibition featuring the world's top players. They picked the first week of January as most players would be en route to Australia to play the first Grand Slam of the year. In its first year, in 1999, the event attracted the Williams sisters, who were just starting to make their name. But this time Venus and Serena Williams will be flying direct to Australia to compete in Aussie Open buildup tournaments. Behind Capriati, the next highest-ranked player in the field is Russian number one Dementieva, world number 15, while Coetzer is ranked 19. In keeping with the hard economic times organisers have also slashed prices with tickets on the opening two days costing $200, while tickets for the semi-finals will be $300, and $400 for the final. Last year a final-day ticket cost $550.