Ambitious Baku joins WTA host cities club
Azerbaijan, flush with gas dollars and keen to boost its image, on Monday joined the club of former Soviet republics holding top tennis tournaments as the first ever WTA Baku Cup started in the capital.
The tennis tournament in Baku, organised under the patronage of the late president Heidar Aliyev’s foundation, became the third WTA event at the former Soviet Union after Moscow’s Kremlin Cup and the Tashkent Open in Uzbekistan.
The Azerbaijan tennis federation’s initiative to hold the elite women’s tennis event was also backed by some of the country’s biggest banks and the state-runned oil company SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic).
The idea of hosting the tennis tournament also received the full backing of the country’s current President Ilham Aliyev, who said he was expecting the serious development of sports in Azerbaijan in the near future.
“There were some sports traditions in Azerbaijan in the Soviet era but our athletes failed to achieve any serious success at that time,” Aliyev said at the opening ceremony of Baku tennis academy’s newly built 3 000-seat court, which will host the WTA event.
“Now we’re changing the situation to better create opportunities for bringing on our young sports stars throughout the country,” he added.
“I believe our tennis players will now be able to receive the precious experience of playing against the world’s top tennis players to improve the level of their own playing in the near future.
“The hosting of the international WTA competition in Baku is a very important fact,” the president added. “It should seriously increase the popularity of tennis in Azerbaijan.”
World No 3 Vera Zvonareva of Russia tops the event’s entry list together with her compatriots Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ekaterina Makarova and Elena Vesnina.
Czech Lucie Safarova and Monica Niculescu of Romania are also among the event’s seeds. The total prize fund is $220 000 and the final is scheduled for Sunday.
Azerbaijan tennis federation chief Ogtay Asadov also said he believed that the WTA event would increase interest in the game in the country.
“We have chosen the right time to host the event as no other WTA tournaments will be played this week,” Asadov said.
“Our tournament is played ahead of the US Open and, I believe, is a good practice stage for the top athletes in their preparations for the Grand Slam extravaganza at New York.”
Azerbaijan, buoyed by income from its vast Caspian gas reserves, is keen to boost its image with showpiece events despite the West’s concerns about authoritarian rule and its rights record.
The country received another boost earlier this year when its victory in the Eurovision Song Contest gave it the right to host the 2012 edition, in what is set to be the biggest showpiece event in its post-Soviet history.
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