Te Anau turns it on for top players

Rubin Statham
Rubin Statham
The small Northern Southland town of Te Anau is home to the country’s third-richest tennis tournament. Logan Savory takes a look at just where it has come from and how this year’s tournament is shaping up.

Greg Sheppard almost cringes when he recalls the first year the Te Anau Tennis Club put together the Te Anau Invitational tournament.

The club went about trying to entice the country's best men's tennis players to Te Anau during the Christmas New Year holiday period.

It took a lot of phone calls and twisting of arms to convince New Zealand's top players that a tournament in a town with a population of about 2000 was worth a shot.

Sheppard remembers a player at that first tournament in 2013 asking where he could get his racket restrung.

Sheppard quickly realised there were a few things he had not thought of. Year one was a learning curve.

Then there was the task of convincing the public to turn out a watch the event.

Putting on such a tournament was a bold and ambitious move by a group of eager volunteers in Te Anau.

This week, Te Anau will host its sixth Te Anau Invitational and the tournament has quickly developed into an important event on New Zealand's tennis calendar.

It has the third-largest prize pool of any tennis tournament in New Zealand, behind the men's and women's ASB Classic events.

The Te Anau community has rallied to ensure another prize pool of $20,000 for this year's tournament.

Players now send their CVs to Sheppard in an attempt to convince him to offer them one of the eight spots at the tournament.

The 20 corporate tables available courtside at the event are also prized possessions.

''[The corporate tables] are like whitebait stands now. They get the first right of renewal,'' Sheppard said.

And, for the record, the club has also invested in a machine to restring rackets.

Sheppard acknowledges the $20,000 prize pool provided pulling power in getting players to Te Anau.

But he said the other trump card was to provide the players with a good dose of southern hospitality.

It is a professional tournament but with a large grass-roots component attached to it.

The tournament is run by volunteers and is a fundraiser for the Te Anau Tennis Club.

The proceeds each year go to subsidising a professional tennis coach in Te Anau.

As a result, tennis had become a more affordable sport in the lakeside town and Sheppard said they were starting to produce some encouraging junior performances.

The tournament is set up for players who are available for New Zealand Davis Cup selection.

Davis Cup coach Alistair Hunt helps Sheppard sort of the players for the tournament.

Sheppard has put the idea to ASB Classic director Karl Budge to provide the Te Anau Invitational winner with a wildcard entry into the ASB Classic.

Budge has not budged, although he has said Te Anau Invitational results would be factored into deciding the wildcards.

On top of the main tournament, exhibition matches are also organised for the two days. Ten-time Grand Slam title winner Cara Black was attracted to play an exhibition match at last year's tournament.

Sheppard has ambitious plans around attracting more high-profile names to play exhibition matches in Te Anau.

''The dream is Roger Federer. He might be 80 when we can make it happen, but that is the dream,'' he said.

Money becomes the sticking point when negotiating with big names, but Sheppard felt they had other bargaining tools.

''We can put on one heck of a holiday for them,'' he said.

The 2018 tournament will take place on Friday and Saturday and a quality line-up has been attracted.

Defending champion Rubin Statham is back for another shot.

He will face some tough competition in the form of Ajeet Rai, although Statham has beaten Rai in recent finals at the Wellington Open and the West End Cup.

Finn Tearney is another contender as he tries to break a string of runner-up finishes at the Te Anau Invitational.

KP Pannu is a late call-up, replacing Brett Purcell who has been forced out with an injury.

Other players who will line up in Te Anau are Olly Sadler, James Meredith, Wesley Whitehouse and Isaac Becroft.

An exhibition match will be played on Friday night between Lulu Sun and Suzie Larkins.

Sun is the No23 world-ranked junior player. Born in Te Anau, she is now based in Switzerland.

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