Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Champ opts for 'lucky' Classic

China's Zheng Jie in Auckland yesterday. Photo / Photosport
China's Zheng Jie in Auckland yesterday. Photo / Photosport

It's always good to have the defending champion in town but it looked unlikely for the 2013 ASB Classic.

It was expected surprise 2012 champ Zheng Jie would remain at home for a new tournament in Shenzen (near Hong Kong) offering over twice the prize money.

She came under significant pressure to play the hometown event, both from organisers and China Tennis, but opted for Auckland, partly on the advice of her husband, who is also her coach.

"[He told me] you played so well here last time and the people were so nice to you, so why don't you come back," Zheng told the Herald on Sunday. "The Chinese tournament wanted me to come because it is a new tournament. I thought about it and I have more friends watching me there [but] for me, this is my lucky tournament so that is why I fly a long way to come here. I like the tournament, the volunteers, the hotel - everything is the same so I feel more comfortable."

Fully aware of the threat from the $610,000 Shenzen event (the ASB Classic offers $268,000), tournament director Karl Budge made the re-signing of the 29-year-old Zheng a priority, starting talks with the two time Grand Slam semifinalist in his second week in the job.

"It was important strategically for us to get Zheng to come back," says Budge.

The 1.64m Zheng beat three seeds to claim the title and rain delayedthe final by over a day.

It was Zheng's first WTA title since 2006 and she went on to reach the last 16 at the Australian Open. The rest of the year was mixed, not helped by pressure to succeed at the London Olympics.

"In China the Olympics is very important so I was very focused on a good Olympics," says Zheng. "The pressure was hard but [in] my life I [won't] have many chances to play the Olympics so I tried to enjoy it. In 2013 I [hope I] can enjoy my tennis more [and be] more relaxed."

Tennis continues to boom in the Asian nation. Though still not as big as table tennis or badminton, the Shenzen event means China now has three WTA tournaments (along with two ATP events).

"In China, tennis is growing up a lot," says Zheng, who runs her own junior tournament in Beijing. "We have had the Olympic gold medal, a grand slam doubles and Li Na won a grand slam singles. Many kids are coming to the tennis courts now."

Zheng was an enthusiastic participant in yesterday's draw, alongside Yanina Wickmayer and Julia Goerges, with top seed and world No4 Agnieszka Radwanska not present after her agent apparently mixed up her arrival dates. Zheng faces Jamie Hampton (USA, world No70) in the first round, and will play local hope Marina Erakovic if both progress. She has faced the Erakovice once, winning in three sets in Hobart in 2009.

"Marina is a good player but I can't think about that now," says Zheng. "I've had one month without tournaments so I need to focus on the first match and play my best."

After first round exits in recent years, Erakovic (66) will face a qualifier this time. Radwanska will play Kristina Mladenovic (France, 96), second seed Julia Goerges (Germany, 18) has also drawn a qualifier and 2010 ASB Classic champion Yanina Wickmayer (Belgium, 23) will play Magdalena Rybarikova (71) from Slovakia.

Among first round match-ups are former finalist Elena Vesnina (Russia, 68) and Canadian wildcard Eugenie Bouchard (147) while Heather Watson's (England, 49) clash with Romanian fifth seed Sorana Cirstea (27) promises plenty and the game between two-time former champion Eleni Daniilidou (97) and American wildcard Coco Vandeweghe (100) should be hard fought and entertaining.

- Herald on Sunday

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