Investment at Edgbaston pays off with tournament earning premier status
Pre-Wimbledon event gains star appeal as Britons progress at Melbourne qualifying
The Lawn Tennis Association's investment in the redevelopment of the Edgbaston Priory Club will be rewarded from next year with better quality fields for the annual Aegon Classic tournament. The upgrading of the grass-court event should ensure that more leading players appear in the tournament, which has sometimes struggled to attract the game's biggest names.
From 2014 the tournament will become a Premier 600 event, which will rank it alongside some of the biggest tournaments on the Women's Tennis Association tour. The WTA ensures that a certain number of top players compete in its main events. Prize money will treble to around £435,000 and the tournament will offer more ranking points to players.
The LTA, keen to promote grass-court tennis, has invested £5m in the £12m redevelopment of the Priory Club, which is continuing apace. A new indoor centre has opened recently and a new Centre Court will be used at this summer's tournament.
As revealed in The Independent last month, Wimbledon's move to a week later in the year from 2015, creating a three-week gap after the French Open, is prompting some major changes to the grass-court season.
The main women's tour currently has three pre-Wimbledon grass-court events, which the WTA would like to expand to six, one of which might be an additional event in Britain. While the Eastbourne tournament is expected to stay in its slot in the week before Wimbledon, Edgbaston's position in the calendar – it is currently staged in the week immediately after the French Open – could move.
Another change in 2014 will see Wuhan, Li Na's home city, replace Tokyo on the calendar. The Pan Pacific Open has been held in Tokyo since 1984. The move to Wuhan, a city with a population of 10 million, brings to five the number of WTA events held in China.
"It's a special city for me, of course, as I was born and grew up there," Li said, before adding with a smile: "The easy way for me to win if my good friends on the tour come to Wuhan is to show them how good the food is. So they will eat first and then won't be able to move on court."
Meanwhile two British women, Heather Watson and Laura Robson, are guaranteed places in the main draw of next week's Australian Open in Melbourne. A third, Johanna Konta, the world No 153, was hoping to take a step towards joining them when she met China's Yi-Miao Zhou in the second round of qualifying today.
Konta, who was born in Sydney but was given British nationality last year, enjoyed a battling victory in the first round today, beating Latvia's Anastasia Sevastova, the world No 179, 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 after more than two and a half hours. Among the interested spectators was Venus Williams; Konta wears kit from Williams' EleVen clothing range.
Anne Keothavong, who has slipped to No 142 in the world rankings, fell at the first hurdle of qualifying, though she had her chances against Grace Min, of the United States. The Briton served for the first set at 5-4 and was 5-2 up in the second set but was eventually beaten 7-5, 7-5.
Two more British men were hoping to join Andy Murray in the main draw. In today's second qualifying round Jamie Baker was due to play Italy's Matteo Viola, while James Ward was set to face the experienced German, Mischa Zverev.
John Isner, the world No 13, will not be among those taking his place in the Australian Open.
The 27-year-old American, who was the top seed in this week's warm-up event in Sydney, has been suffering from a bruised bone in his knee and has been advised not to play next week in Melbourne.
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