Venus to play in Auckland
Auckland - Five-time Wimbledon singles champion Venus Williams will begin her 2012 tennis season at the ASB Classic in Auckland in January.
Tournament organisers said on Thursday that the 31-year-old Williams had been given a wildcard to play the outdoor hard-court event which runs from January 2-7.
Williams has traditionally begun her Australian Open preparations at a tournament in Hong Kong which she has won four times since 1999.
Williams' ranking has dropped to 101 due to illness and injury last year.
She was forced to pull out of the US Open because of an immune system disease called Sjogren's syndrome which can cause fatigue and joint pain.
She's won seven grand slam singles titles, more than $US28 million in prize money and appeared on Oprah and the David Letterman show.
Now, Venus Williams will appear in Auckland in January for the ASB Classic.
Williams is one of the most recognisable figures in women's sport and, together with her sister, has dominated women's tennis over the past decade.
She has won 43 singles titles since her breakthrough win in 1998 and appeared in 27 other finals. She's also won 12 grand slam doubles titles with Serena as well as two Olympic gold medals (2000, in the singles and doubles).
It was a major coup for organisers as tournament director Richard Palmer was pleasantly surprised to field an approach from Williams' agent to play in Auckland after they secured an appearance from Maria Sharapova for this year's event.
It's unlikely Williams would have been secured for anything less than $100 000 (R795 000), which is comparable to the amount Sharapova received to play here this year.
"She's one of the iconic sportswomen in the world,'' Palmer said.
"There are probably four of them and she's one of them, so to get one two years in a row (after Sharapova played this year's) is fantastic.
"She currently has the best record of an player active on the circuit, and that record speaks for itself.''
Palmer was optimistic Williams would be fit to play, especially as the ASB Classic was the only tournament she would play before the Australian Open.
"There's always a risk [she won't],'' Palmer said.
"Every single player you get you wait with bated breath and wonder if they are going to turn up. Yes, it has happened on the odd occasion and it's more likely to happen with her. I would like to think not. The fact they want to have a big 2012 and have chosen one event before the Australian Open, our event, is very positive.''
Palmer has a good record signing top players, and Williams and Sharapova are two of a number who are either former world No 1s or players who went on to become No 1.
Caroline Wozniacki is currently the world's top-ranked player and was a beaten quarter-finalist in Auckland in 2009, Lindsay Davenport won in 2008 and Jelena Jankovic was the 2007 champion. Vera Zvonareva, a former world No 2, was a beaten finalist in both 2006 and 2007.