Michael Burgess is a sports writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Superstars in town for ASB Classic

Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic. Illustration / Rod Emmerson
Venus Williams, Caroline Wozniacki, Ana Ivanovic. Illustration / Rod Emmerson

Across the history of the WTA tour, which stretches back more than 40 years, there have been just 21 women who have held the coveted No 1 ranking in the sport. Of that elite group, seven are current players. And three of them are in Auckland next week.

Tennis fans - and sports aficionados - in this country will be treated to star power on a celestial level to begin 2016. Venus Williams is back, Ana Ivanovic has returned and wait, Caroline Wozniacki is here too. A trio of players recognised from Beijing to Budapest, Bogota to Beirut.

To have three former World No 1s together in this country is unprecedented in tennis - and probably in any other sport. Any of the trio could headline the tournament on their own.

Williams, Ivanovic and Wozniacki have 86 WTA tournament wins between them, and have been runners-up in another 54 finals. There are also 19 Grand Slam singles finals, and eight titles. They boast sponsorship and ambassador contracts with some of the biggest brands in the world.

Last year only two other female athletes on the planet earned more than Wozniacki, while Ivanovic was No 5 on Forbes' list of the highest paid sportswomen. Williams and Ivanovic are also among that rare group of sports people who garner instant recognition by their first name alone.

"It's huge to have these three at one tournament," said former WTA professional Barbara Schett-Eagle.

"They are all big names in our sport who are achieved so much. And they will all be major contenders at the Australian Open, that's how good they are."

Schett-Eagle, who attained a highest WTA ranking of seven and will be a commentator at the ASB Classic, says Auckland has an obvious attraction, especially for such big names.
"They love the privacy here," said Schett-Eagle.

"They know they can walk around the city and not really get bothered, keep a low profile. Auckland also has a great, knowledgeable crowd and it is an easy going tournament; it has modernised over the years but hasn't lost its personal touch."

There may be another reason why Williams, Ivanovic and Wozniacki have chosen to start their seasons in the Queen City. Tennis players are notoriously superstitious and all three have enjoyed success after an Auckland appearance. Wozniacki first came here as a 19-year-old in 2009 and reached the quarter-finals. Later that year the Dane broke into the world's top five and reached her first Grand Slam final.

Ivanovic won the tournament in her only previous appearance here in 2014, which was the start of a stellar year for the Serbian. She reached a career best six finals (winning four) and achieved her highest ranking since 2008.

And Auckland has been pivotal in the twilight of Williams' trophy laden career. The 2014 ASB Classic was her first WTA final in almost 18 months - and her victory over Wozniacki last year was the beginning of a remarkable resurgence for the American, culminating in her return to the top 10 for the first time since 2011.

"I love it here," said Williams after last years' final.

"Tennis feels different here than most places. Tennis can be very stressful but when you come here you feel all the more at ease. I waited until I was 33 to come to New Zealand and that was one of the biggest mistakes of my life."

Williams remains one of the most feared opponents on tour, more than two decades after her first professional match and 13 years since she held the No 1 ranking.

"Her serve remains a massive weapon," said Schett-Eagle.

"But she has still got powerful ground strokes and is coming to the net a lot more, which tends to break the rhythm of younger players."

Williams has achieved just about everything in tennis; seven Grand Slam singles titles, 41 other tournament victories and one of only three active players (along with Serena and Maria Sharapova) who has made the final at all four slams.

Ivanovic has also scaled mighty peaks - victory at Roland Garros and the world No 1 ranking before her 21st birthday - but wants another major success to justify her immense talents.

Meanwhile, Wozniacki, despite all her success - 67 weeks on top of the WTA tree between 2010 and 2012 and almost $30 million in prize money - is regularly rated as the best current player never to win a Grand Slam. Indeed, she is one of only three players (along with Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina) who have held the No 1 ranking but haven't found the ultimate success in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York.

Ana Ivanovic won the 2008 French Open, as well as making the final in Melbourne that year. Photo / Richard Robinson
Ana Ivanovic won the 2008 French Open, as well as making the final in Melbourne that year. Photo / Richard Robinson

Ana Ivanovic
Age: 28
Turned professional: 2003
WTA titles/finals: 15/23
Grand Slam titles/finals: 1/3
Career prizemoney: $21.86 million
Auckland record: 5-0, Winner 2014
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Venus Williams is returning to Auckland. Photo / AP
Venus Williams is returning to Auckland. Photo / AP


Venus Williams
Age: 35
Turned professional: 1994
WTA titles/finals: 48/78
Grand Slam titles/finals: 7/14
Career prizemoney: $47.54 million
Auckland record: 9-1, Winner 2015, Runner-Up 2014.
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Caroline Wozniacki is considered one of the best players to not have a grand slam win. Photo / AP
Caroline Wozniacki is considered one of the best players to not have a grand slam win. Photo / AP


Caroline Wozniacki
Age: 25
Turned professional: 2005
WTA titles/finals: 23/40
Grand Slam titles/finals: 0/2
Career prizemoney: $29.78 million
Auckland record: 7-2. Runner-up 2015, Quarter-finalist 2009.

- NZ Herald

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