Tennis: Classic in Chinese court battle

By Michael Burgess

New Shenzhen tournament will prove a big challenge for Auckland's major event, writes Michael Burgess.

Last year's top seed Sabine Lisicki.
Photo / NZ Herald
Last year's top seed Sabine Lisicki. Photo / NZ Herald

Tournament organisers are putting on a brave face but the ASB Classic faces a difficult future, with the news that a lucrative Chinese event will be staged at the same time.

The recently confirmed Shenzhen tournament is a massive elephant in the room; a direct and immediate threat to the quality and relevance of the Auckland event in 2013 and beyond.

While the tournament will continue to be a popular element of the New Zealand summer, realistically it might struggle to maintain its high profile.

The ASB Classic now shares its calendar slot with Brisbane and Shenzhen, one of only two weeks in the year with three tournaments competing for players.

And it is not an equal fight. While the ASB Classic continues with its relatively modest US$220,000 prizemoney ($265,000), the Brisbane International event has had its prizemoney upgraded to US$1 million ($1.2 million), while the new China event boasts a purse of US$500,000 ($603,000).

As well as the significantly higher prizemoney on offer, the Asian event is expected to have a large player recruitment budget. The Chinese typically don't cut corners financially and will want to assemble the best possible field. They are allowed to contract two top 10 players and will have their radar fixed on as many of the rest of the top 30 players in the world.

In the past, Auckland has secured players ranked from 10 to 30 with an estimated payment of US$5000-US$10,000, an airfare and sometimes an extra hotel room thrown in.

The Chinese tournament might offer two to three times that amount, which will test goodwill towards the Auckland event.

It is also expected that all the Chinese players, who have been a significant presence in Auckland in recent years (Zheng Jie is the defending champion, Li Na was second seed in 2010 and Peng Shuai was a semifinalist in 2011 and second seed last year) will play their local tournament.

"It's hard to see how the new tournament in China won't have a big impact," says one WTA insider. "It will take another 32 names [plus qualifiers] out of the market and not every player chooses to play in the first week [of the year] anyway. You can be sure they will have a significant player recruitment budget. You have to question whether there are enough players to be spread across four events [including Perth's Hopman Cup] at this time of the year."

Adding to the equation is the fact that sports marketing giant IMG owns the new Chinese event. They have a significant number of players in the top 100 on their books and logically will look to encourage names in their stable towards Shenzhen. And while China is not the most convenient launch pad to the Australian Open, connections from China to this part of the world are much improved and increased.

In recent times, the world ranking cut off for direct entries at the ASB Classic has been around 60-70 but next year, that is likely to move towards 80-100.

Brisbane have already secured superstars Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, while Venus Williams has committed to the Hopman Cup.

Auckland might have traditionally targeted someone such as Caroline Wozniacki as their marquee player. With her pedigree, the Dane might be expected to command a fee of between $60,000 and $100,000, but China would be well placed to trump that.

However, new tournament director Karl Budge remains optimistic and is downplaying the potential threat of the Shenzhen event.

"I don't think it will have a huge impact," says Budge. "Playing there at that time, in winter and indoors, won't help them acclimatise in the slightest. I expect they will take out two top 10s but I don't see a huge chunk of players ranked 11 to 30 choosing China as their preparation for one of the biggest events of the year.

"Travel will be an issue and their appearance money budget will be large but it won't be unlimited. They will throw money at the two top 10s but I don't think they will have the money to go too aggressively at the next level.

"I genuinely think - and I hope I won't be proven wrong - that players are thinking about Melbourne at that time and want to have the best possible preparation that they can. Getting three or four matches under their belt in this part of the world will be more important than packing a cheque and possibly not going to Australia feeling great."

As well as the Shenzhen factor, the ASB Classic and Heineken Open - which have been signatures of our summer - face some of their biggest challenges in years. Long time tournament director Richard Palmer has departed, taking with him long established personal relationships with players and agents. Palmer's departure has also coincided with the resignation of a number of other long-serving staff, many of whom filled key roles around the tournament.

While the prizemoney and overall player recruitment budget for the Heineken Open has remained static, players' appearance fees on the Tour have generally risen, meaning that the Heineken Open might also struggle to assemble a quality field. Historically, players up to 35 in the world have demanded appearance fees but now those ranked in the 40s and 50s tend to ask for a pre-play cheque.

The Heineken Open competes with the Sydney ATP event and a plethora of exhibitions. There is also a growing trend of players not wanting to play in the week leading into the Australian Open, instead preferring to acclimatise and practise in Melbourne.

The tournaments are also the main (and probably only) shop window for the sport in this country.

"They are very important to us as a sport," says Tennis New Zealand chief executive Steve Johns. "It is a great opportunity to promote tennis and we get saturation coverage in all media across that time."

Budge talks of creating a "mini-Melbourne", inspired by the way that that city comes alive during the two weeks of the grand slam.

Tennis Auckland chief executive Robyn Kiddle envisages "something that is more of an event, rather than a tennis tournament".

In the end, though, it is all about the players and perhaps expectations in that area need to be adjusted.

Our international golf tournaments struggle to attract anyone in the top 100, so maybe the tennis events have overachieved in recent times.

"We have a pretty compelling package and a nice story to tell," says Budge, "and players like coming here.

"I think it will be a strong field and I'm confident we will have some highly ranked players in this part of the world."

- Herald on Sunday

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