Special Correspondent

MUMBAI: Marat Safin, Lleyton Hewitt, Marcos Baghdatis and Richard Gasquet will take part in the Kingfisher Airlines Open 2007, which will be held from September 24 to 30 at the Cricket Club of India hardcourts in Mumbai.

The prize money has been increased to $ 416,000 ($ 380,000 last year), raising the stakes in one of the emerging tournaments on the ATP circuit.

Tournament director, Gaurav Natekar, said the focus was on assembling a bunch of dynamic, interesting personalities for the benefit of Indian fans.

“Last year, we saw raw talent. This time we have attracted pros with Grand Slam titles to their name, many of them characters on and off court,” said the former Davis Cupper.

Asked about the possibility of some of these big names withdrawing from the Mumbai event, Natekar said that Safin, Hewitt, Baghdatis, Gasquet were confirmed singles entries, apart from others like Fabrice Santoro.

“Injury is part and parcel of a tennis player’s life. A percentage of players opting out due to injury and other reasons are common to every ATP event.”

Bangkok is hosting an ATP event ($ 550,000 Thailand Open) the same week. “The Mumbai event is followed by Tokyo, so we expect the top pros to head for Japan after playing here,” he said.

Wildcards for Indians

Natekar confirmed that wildcards would be handed out to Indian players, in keeping with Globosport intent on encouraging domestic talent, though names will be known only when the draws are made.

Prakash Amritraj was one of the Indians on the wildcard list, said Natekar.

But the news about his recent injury would mean the decision about granting him the wildcard would have to wait, he added.

Indian interest hinges on the doubles, with Mahesh Bhupathi, Leander Paes and Rohan Bopanna expected to take part, like the inaugural year.

Bhupathi and Bopanna had featured in the men’s doubles final, the former partnered Ancic, the latter with Mustafa Ghouse. Ancic’s absence will result in Bhupathi choosing a new doubles partner.

Leander had made waves in Kingfisher Airlines Open 2006 with Pakistan’s Aisam Qureshi.

Now with the latter striking a successful partnership with Bopanna in Challengers this season, the permutations and combinations are intriguing.

“At this point, we do not know about Qureshi’s plan,” said Natekar.

Spirit of tennis

Kingfisher Airlines chairman and CEO, Mr. Vijay Mallya, addressing the media at Taj Lands End, said: “We are pleased that Kingfisher Airlines’ association with this tournament helps to spread the spirit of tennis among many youngsters, paving the way for nurturing future champions from India.”

He was referring to players such as 2006 doubles finalists Bopanna and Ghouse, grabbing the opportunity created by circumstances, ending up sharing $ 9600 and valuable ranking points in India’s biggest ATP competition.

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