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

Tennis: The four year chase for Serena

Serena Williams will be hitting our shores next year for the 2017 ASB Classic. Photo / AP
Serena Williams will be hitting our shores next year for the 2017 ASB Classic. Photo / AP

The deal to bring Serena Williams to Auckland was sealed over a coffee in a New York lounge bar in August.

Williams, who is unquestionably the biggest female sports star on the planet, was announced on Wednesday morning as the marquee signing for the 2017 ASB Classic.

It's a remarkable coup.

Over the last few years Auckland tennis fans have been treated to some big names, with Jo-Wifried Tsonga, Ana Ivanovic, Gael Monfils, Caroline Wozniacki and Serena's sister Venus appearing in the City of Sails.

That's a list of big names, grand slam winners and former World No1s. But Williams, who has won a record 22 grand slam singles titles, is on another level and it took some serious courting to get her to New Zealand.

The final deal was signed in the lounge bar of the New York Palace hotel, a five star venue, located in the heart of Manhattan, a few steps from the Rockerfeller centre in late August. ASB Classic tournament director Karl Budge met with Williams's agent Jill Smoller - who has represented the player for almost her entire career - to finalise the details four days before the start of the US Open.

That was the climax of a four year process of persistence that might be entitled Chasing Serena. Budge first made contact with Serena and her team in 2013, and every year since has put offers on the table.

"It's how it works - there is a track record with the big stars we have brought out," said Budge. "None of them have come in the first year we approached them. It takes time to build the relationship, build the trust and ultimately break them down because we are not going to be the most money on the table or the highest ranking points...we are never going to be in that space. You have to get through that resistance and point out why you are the right place to be. "

The ASB Classic has paid a "competitive fee" to secure the services of the 35-year-old American. It's the most they have forked out for any single player; more than Maria Sharapova, more than Tsonga, more than David Ferrer when he was No4 in the world, more than Monfils, Ivanovic or Wozniacki. It's a significant six figure sum but still relatively modest by tennis standards.

Williams, who has held all four grand slam trophies on two occasions during her career, can command at least US$500,000 ($686,000) for a single exhibition match, and a lot more for cash rich tournaments in the middle east. The Brisbane International, played in the same week as the ASB Classic, offers US$1 million ($1.37 million) in total prizemoney, four times the amount of the Auckland purse while the Hopman Cup also has significant funding behind it.

It's clearly not about the money, so why has Williams chosen to start the year in a relatively small tournament in New Zealand? Glowing endorsements from her sister would have helped, as Venus has enjoyed her time at Stanley Street, and Auckland has also established a reputation as an ideal place to prepare for the Australian Open. .

"Serena is at the point where she has done everything there is to do in tennis, said Budge. "Maybe she is open to looking at a few changes to her year.

And remember she was runner up at the Australian Open last year and that won't sit well. I think you will see a very motivated Serena Williams looking to reclaim that Melbourne title and we are lucky that we form part of that buildup."

"The ASB Classic is the first event of the year," said Williams. "It can really set you up for a great run in Melbourne and I will be looking to start my year strongly in Auckland,"

- NZ Herald

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