(Reuters) - The prize-money is paltry, the field lacks star power and the tournament director is busy hammering out the draw while locked down in quarantine.
But New Zealand will be proud to revive elite tennis next week when it stages the "Premier League" in Auckland, marking the southern hemisphere's first pro competition since the COVID-19 pandemic brought global sport to a halt. [L4N2D70SV]
The men's team-based tournament will run for three weeks from June 3, giving tennis-starved fans something to watch in the absence of the pinnacle ATP and WTA tours, which have been suspended since early March.
It will also have the sporting spotlight exclusively in New Zealand for its opening 10 days, having left professional rugby union's June 13 restart in the dust.
All 112 matches will be staged without the general public in the terraces but the games will be broadcast live on Sky Sport's Youtube channel, Sky Sport Next.
"Yeah, it's a big thing," Tennis New Zealand's commercial manager Gareth Archer told Reuters.
"As soon as rugby starts there's probably no more talk about (anything else) in New Zealand so to get a week or two on them is a good thing."
New Zealand has been relatively successful in containing COVID-19, recording about 1,500 cases and 21 deaths. A strict two-month lockdown reduced new infections to a trickle.
Authorities have begun easing social restrictions in recent weeks, however, giving the green light for pro sports to restart.
Travel curbs and border controls remain in place, so there will be no influx of ATP stars flying in to Auckland to shake off the shut-down rust.
Instead, it will be world number 77 Cameron Norrie, a New Zealand-based Briton, headlining a modest field of 24.
With New Zealand lacking any men in the ATP's top 500 singles rankings, the "Premier League" will feature a grab-bag of college players and doubles specialists like Queenstown resident Ben McLachlan, who switched allegiance to Japan and played Davis Cup for the Asian nation.
They will play for a prize pool of about NZ$90,000 ($54,800), about half of which will be shared as base pay among all the entrants, giving some struggling players some welcome income during the sport's shutdown.
"Part of it is also that it's a bit of an economic driver for guys with no income -- racquet stringers, physios, court hirers, all those kinds of things," said Archer.
Despite New Zealand's low profile in tennis, the country hosts an ATP and WTA event very home summer, giving local fans a chance to watch some of the sport's bigger names warm up for the year's first Grand Slam in neighbouring Australia.
Social restrictions limiting public gatherings to 100 people will mean on-site spectators at the Premier League will likely be limited to a smattering of sponsors and media.
It will be hard graft for Tennis New Zealand's tournament director Blake Taylor, who has a marathon shift ahead of him once he emerges from quarantine.
After taking a flying visit to Queensland, the Australian is holed up in a New Zealand hotel serving out a two-week quarantine period before the tournament starts.
"He's in one of the quarantine hotels for another four or five nights, then he gets released a couple of days before the event and we basically send him straight onto the court," said Archer.
"He's good, he's really taking a bullet for us."
($1 = 1.6426 New Zealand dollars)
(Reporting by Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Christian Radnedge)
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