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Van Open still growing

$200,000 up for grabs this week at Hollyburn
Top seed Monica Niculescu is No. 58 in the world.

The pros are back at West Vancouver's Hollyburn Country Club this week for the annual Odlum Brown Vancouver Open tennis tournament and this year there's more cash up for grabs than ever.

Tournament organizers bumped the women's prize pool from $75,000 to $100,000 this year, equaling the men's amount. The $200,000 total makes the Vancouver Open the world's largest Challenger event - one level below the top-tier world tour.

"We actually sit right in the middle between the full-time tour and the Challenger tour," said tournament director Ryan Clark last week as he scrambled to put the finishing touches on the event. "What we've done I think is extremely responsible. We've built this up from a $25,000 tournament in 2002. Literally every two years the prize money has been bumped up and now we're up to $200,000. Because we're an annual event, we want to make sure that we grow this at a pace that we can manage and that we can sustain and afford."

One of the goals for the

tournament is, eventually, to become a top-tier tour event, said Clark. But it has to happen slowly.

"If you build it up too fast it kind of crumbles down on you quickly," he said, adding that for a $200,000 tournament, approximately $500,000 for expenses needs to be raised - a job that falls mainly to tournament chairman and underwriter Floyd Hill.

This year the extra cash has enticed some top-level talent, led on the women's side by Romania's Monica Niculescu, currently ranked No. 58 in the world. Four other top-100 players are also in the draw, as well as three former Van Open champions: Britain's Anne Keothavong, winner in 2007; Poland's Urszula Radwanska, 2008's champion; and Stephanie Dubois of Laval, Que., champion in 2009.

Laura Robson, a 17-year-old from Britain who won a junior Wimbledon title as a 14-year-old in 2008, is another one to watch, said Clark.

"She's a lefty, she's incredibly talented. She's someone who's probably going to be in the top-50 in the world, if not top-30 in the world, very soon," he said, adding that like 2002 champion Maria Sharapova, many of these players are young stars on the rise. "We have a ton of girls who I think are going to be in the top 20 or 30 in the world in the next year or two."

American Robby Ginepri is the most recognizable name on the men's side. The former top-15 player is coming back from a nasty elbow injury he suffered in a mountain bike crash last September. Ginepri reportedly fell after swerving to avoid a squirrel. He'll likely want to stay away from the North Shore's trails, famous for their high degree of difficulty.

Ginepri returned to the ATP tour earlier this month. "I think we're going to be a really important tournament for him because he needs to get the matches in getting ready for the U.S. Open," said Clark. "He's a big, strong guy. . . . He hits a huge ball, hits a lot of pace, it's a big shot and now he just needs the matches in him to get his match legs under him."

The No. 1-seeded player is Taipei's Yen-Hsun Lu, the 76thranked player in the world who became the first Asian man in 15 years to reach the quarterfinals of a grand slam event when he upset Andy Roddick in the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2010.

"He's the No. 1 competitor in Asia," said Clark. "Over there he's massive. He's got a massive following so we have to have our Twitter and everything else ready when he starts to play because everyone wants constant updates on him."

North Vancouver's own Philip Bester is back in the tournament fresh off winning the decisive match for Canada in a dramatic 3-2 victory over Ecuador in a Davis Cup tie. Fellow Davis Cup hero and Vernon, B.C. native Vasek Pospisil is also in the main draw.

Both Bester and Pospisil got their pro careers rolling with appearances at the Vancouver Open, said Clark.

"For years we had Grant Connell from North Van leading the charge on Davis Cup, and now with Philip and Vasek, two B.C. boys here being the leaders of Davis Cup, that's exactly what the goal is. . . . That's one of the reasons why you have this Vancouver Open tournament - it's to give these guys this opportunity.

"That's why the professional tournaments are so important - they launch guys like Philip and Vasek. It gives them that ability to keep moving forward and I think it's starting to pay off now."

Qualifying rounds, free for spectators, are being played this weekend with the main draw beginning tomorrow. Tickets are still available.

"There's nothing better than professional sport live," said Clark. "It's just exciting because you can see the intensity and the energy and you can feel it coming off the players. I know anybody who comes will be really entertained."

For updated tournament information, schedules and results visit

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West Vancouver's Monica Neveklovska was granted a wild card spot into the qualifying draw at the Vancouver Open and will be in action today.

Neveklovska is coming off a runner-up finish at last week's Stanley Park Open where she was seeded No. 1 but fell 5-7, 6-4, 7-5 in the final to Burnaby's Katerina Boiko. Neveklovska did claim a title at the Stanley Park Open, teaming up with fellow West Vancouverite Sinziana Chis to win the women's doubles final 6-4, 6-2 over Kelly McNabney and Shiera Stuart of Vancouver.