Japan fights to save Pan Pacific after China switch

Organisers of Japan's premier tennis tournament said Thursday they have not given up hope of remaining on the women's world tour, despite being supplanted by a new event in China on the 2014 calendar.

The Women's Tennis Association said on Wednesday that Wuhan, the home town of China's former French Open champion Li Na, will replace Tokyo's 30-year-old Pan Pacific Open as one of the tour's high-ranking "Premier 5" events.

"The 2014 calendar is still at a draft level," an official from the Pan Pacific Open secretariat told AFP.

"We are making arrangements with various parties concerned" to keep the event alive and on the list, possibly by overhauling its structure including the prize money, added the official, who asked not to be named.

Coupled with the inclusion of a lower-level "International" event in Hong Kong, China will host five of the 18 events in the Asia-Pacific in 2014.

Japan is tentatively due to host one just one "International" event that year, the Japan Women's Open in Osaka.

"Indeed China has the momentum as a big event (the China Open) is already in place in Beijing and a new tournament in Shenzhen was just played this year," the official said.

The 2013 Pan Pacific edition is scheduled for late September, the week before the China Open. It will have $2,369,000 in prize money.

"We will aim for the same level of prize money (after 2013) as we think the Pan Pacific deserves it," the official said. He added, however, that a reduction in prize money was a "possibility".

The Pan Pacific Open was launched in 1984 as Asia's first and biggest event on the world women's tour. Its winners have included such big names as Martina Hingis, who won five times between 1997 and 2007, Martina Navratilova (1989, 1993), Steffi Graf (1986, 1990, 1994) and Maria Sharapova (2005, 2009).

"We are excited by the growth of women's professional tennis, particularly in key markets like China and Brazil," WTA chairman and CEO Stacey Allaster said on the tour's website.

"Development in the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) markets, led by China, has been a strategic priority for the past several years," Allaster said. "We look forward to continued strengthening of our global brand, developing our sport, and building our fan base worldwide."

A spokesman for Toray Industries, the Pan Pacific's title sponsor, said he was not aware of any economic factor leading to the exclusion of the event from the 2014 list.

Chinese star Li, speaking at the Sydney International tournament, said tennis was growing in popularity in China, considered a key growth market for the sport due to its booming economy and huge population.

"So many children now pick up the tennis racquet. So many sponsors watch the tennis tournaments. So I think this is the way," said Li, adding that she wished more events were based in China.

"I wish, otherwise I don't need to travel. I can just only stay in China to play tournaments," she laughed.

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