When the women’s ASB Classic finished in January, tournament director Nicolas Lamperin wrote down his priority signings for 2024.
At the top of that list was the retention of defending champion Coco Gauff, as the American had thrilled the crowds with her play, as well as being generous and genuine with her time away from the court.
That goal has now been fulfilled, with the world No 7 confirmed as the marquee signing for next year’s event.
There were initial discussions at the French Open, followed by further talks at Wimbledon before an agreement was struck last month.
It’s a coup for the Auckland tournament, given Gauff’s profile. The 19-year-old is a drawcard wherever she plays and would have been in the sights of other events, particularly the mega-funded United Cup in Australia.
“We identified her as a key priority from day one,” Lamperin told the Herald on Sunday. “She has been so good to the tournament on and off the court and is a joy to work with – the kind of player you want to have for many years.”
The appearance fee negotiated was slightly increased but it was a “no brainer”.
“She is worth it, when you see what she brings to us,” said Lamperin.
For her part, Gauff indicated she was always keen.
“Auckland was one of the first tournaments that we pencilled in,” said Gauff in a statement. “That is not just because it is important to defend the title that I was honoured to win last year, but it is a great way to start my year as the lead-in to the Australian Open. My family all came with me and we love New Zealand and everything it has to offer.”
By her standards, Gauff has had a mixed year. She reached the quarter-finals at the French Open and Indian Wells but also suffered some early exits. However the Florida native, who remains the only teenager inside the top 50, took the Washington title last week – her first tournament win since Auckland.
“She has made some changes to her coaching team and seems to be on a new streak again,” said Lamperin, alluding to Brad Gilbert being brought in as a technical adviser.
Bringing Gauff back was also vital since the drastic changes to the WTA regulations, as first reported by the Herald earlier this year. International-level tournaments such as Auckland are now only able to contract one top-30 player, with exemptions for defending champions and local players.
It’s a big change, as in the past there were no limits on recruitment outside the top 10.
“The rules are not ideal but there are many ways to work around it,” said Lamperin. “There are a lot of players right now in the top 20 who are very good players but not necessarily marketable or players that we would want to have, but there are a lot of big names outside the top 30. It does give us a lot of options, more than I could have thought.”
Lamperin needs to accentuate the positive. It will be a challenge, though the likes of Bianca Andreescu (41st) and Simona Halep (58th) would be drawcards.
2021 US Open champion Emma Raducanu was a marquee name this year and could be back, despite her controversial exit and disparaging remarks about the state of the temporary indoor courts.
Raducanu has had a series of injury setbacks this year and may not play on tour again in 2023. Her ranking (133rd) means she is unlikely to be in the mix for United Cup, so Auckland could yet be an option. Lamperin has had brief discussions with her team but will engage more in the coming months.
Canadian Leylah Fernandez (81st) has also slipped down the ladder but she remains a target.
“We would love to make it happen,” said Lamperin.
He has also had talks with former champion Sloane Stephens (38th), while promising Czech teenagers Linda and Brenda Fruhvirtova are interested in returning.
The biggest target now is Caroline Wozniacki, given her strong links to Auckland. The former world No 1 returned to the tour at the Canadian Open last month, after retiring in 2020 to start a family.
The Dane appeared at the ASB Classic seven times, reaching the final twice. The 33-year-old made no secret of the fact that New Zealand was one of her favourite stops on tour.