Tennis: Open may be missing Kiwis

By Michael Brown

Wildcard for Rochus leaves two spots which director could fill with big names.

Ranked 90 in the world, Belgian Olivier Rochus is outside the cutoff but has been given a wildcard. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Ranked 90 in the world, Belgian Olivier Rochus is outside the cutoff but has been given a wildcard. Photo / Sarah Ivey

Olivier Rochus has been handed a wildcard to next month's Heineken Open but there's a possibility that for the first time in the tournament's nearly 60-year history, no Kiwis will feature in the main draw.

Rochus has twice reached the final of New Zealand's premier men's tennis event, including this year when he was beaten by world No 5 David Ferrer, but has dropped to 90 in the world rankings and outside the ranking cutoff of 61 for direct entries.

But tournament director Karl Budge confirmed he had offered the Belgian a wildcard, leaving only two wildcard spots.

Budge hopes to confirm another by the end of the week. He's in talks with former world No 3 David Nalbandian, former No 7 Gael Monfils and promising American Ryan Harrison, but has made no guarantees he will follow tradition and hand the third to a New Zealander.

Instead, he will hold off until the eve of the Heineken Open to see who is looking for match practice immediately before the Australian Open in the hope of landing a big name.

It's not as if New Zealanders have presented compelling cases for inclusion over recent years and even longer since players like three-time winner Onny Parun were contenders. Rubin Statham, at 358, is the highest-ranked Kiwi followed by Dan King-Turner (375), Michael Venus (514) and Artem Sitak (557).

Statham was the last New Zealander to reach the second round when he beat King-Turner in 2010 and Mark Nielsen was the last to beat a foreign player when he dispatched Andreas Vinciguerra in 2002.

"There are no guarantees [the third wildcard] will go to a Kiwi," Budge said. "What I'm looking at is weighing up the best options we have available at the time ... I have a responsibility of delivering the best possible players we can to provide the strongest field and best entertainment for tennis fans in New Zealand.

"If I don't have a big name, absolutely. If it's between giving it to someone like Rubin or Dan and a chap ranked 98 in the world no one has heard of, we would look at giving one to a Kiwi. But if a big name is knocked out of Brisbane early and wanted some time on court, we would be silly to turn that down."

The best chance a New Zealander might have of making the main draw is to come through qualifying, although it hasn't proved an easy pathway. GD Jones did it in 2008, the first since Malcolm Elley in 1986.

Most of the top Kiwi contingent will make the main draw of qualifying by virtue of their ranking but Budge said he would hand them wildcards if needed. He also said he was considering giving one to promising 17-year-old Cameron Norrie.

King-Turner said he understood Budge's stand but felt one wildcard should go to a home player.

"It would be disappointing if a New Zealander wasn't given a wildcard," he said. "It's our home tournament and it's great to ... play against top players. If you can do well, it's a great kickstart to the year.

"A few years ago I went really close to beating Juan Ignacio Chela who was ranked 15 in the world. After that match against someone of that quality, it gave me confidence going into the rest of the year and I had my best year."

Top seeds

1 David Ferrer (Spain)
2 Philipp Kohlschreiber (Germany)
3 Tommy Haas (Germany)
4 Sam Querrey (US)
5 Jerzy Janowicz (Poland)

- APNZ

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